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Styx at Perth Fringe World
Styx at Perth Fringe World

In the last years of her life, my Mother’s dementia stole all of her, reduced her to a ricture of anxiety and anguish and progressively stripped away almost every part of who she was.  The only thing that brought her any semblance of pleasure and capacity to exist in the present world was Tom Jones. 

Mum always loved music and Tom Jones was her man.  Whenever my Dad would put him on the CD player, Mum would sing and dance her way through the house, seemingly oblivious to furniture or anything else that might get in her way, and inviting anyone who was in the room to dance with her.  For a few moments, Mum was back with us again and happy.

In Mum’s final years, when every other part of her, memory, language, logic, intellect — everything that made her my Mum — had been consumed by this outrageous disease, music was her salvation.

Earlier this year, several years after Mum’s passing, I saw the Perth Fringe World Festival show, STYX, and had a chance to speak to the show’s creator, UK based theatre maker, Max Barton.

As live performance, STYX is a tour-de-force, and an indication that Barton is a theatre maker who will be bringing his productions to bigger and bigger international audiences before too long.  We give it five stars out of five.

STYX is partly a loose telling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  When they are separated by Eurydice’s death from a snakebite, Orpheus travels to the underworld, crosses the River Styx, in an attempt to bring her back to the world of the living.  With the beauty of his music, Orpheus persuades Hades, lord of the underworld, to allow him to bring Eurydice home.  Orpheus was a gun lyre player, the ancient equivalent of today’s guitar hero.  Hades told Orpheus that Eurydice would follow him back from the underworld, but that he must not look back as they made the journey.  Inevitably, Orpheus could not resist the temptation and, as a consequence, Eurydice was consigned to remain in the underworld for ever.


Orpheus died trying to return to the underworld to rescue Eurydice a second time, but his music lives on.

Barton’s production of STYX is a combination of live music, spoken word and recordings of his Grandmother’s memories that he has made during a series of interviews with her as she goes through her own journey into the underworld of dementia.

The staging of the show is like an 19th Century séance.  Each of the musicians/actors has a light above them that illuminates them as they speak.  The largest light, which hangs over centre stage, is reserved for the disembodied voice of Barton’s Grandmother, who hovers over the players and the audience throughout the show.  Barton’s narrative skilfully weaves a story told with pathos, humour and a brand of reverent irreverence that speaks of knowledge beyond our current knowing.

It’s a beautiful, uplifting performance that unfailingly leaves audiences reflecting on the meaning of consciousness and what lies beyond our current lives and preoccupations, as well as smiling while shedding a tear or two.

As live performance, STYX is a tour-de-force, and an indication that Barton is a theatre maker who will be bringing his productions to bigger and bigger international audiences before too long. We give it five stars out of five.

Barton’s journey to making STYX is a very personal one.  The story is about his grandparents and features the words and voice of his Grandmother.  The show’s band features Barton’s sister, Addison Axe, as well as fellow members of Perth’s legendary pop punk band, Axe Girl, Vanessa Thornton (Axe Girl, Jebediah, The Tommyhawks) and Elle Walsh (Axe Girl, The Love Junkies, Trolley Boy), along with Thea Woodward (The Tommyhawks) and Kaprou Lea (Superego).  STYX is a trans-national production that has very deep roots in Perth.  Its themes and explorations of the nature of existence are universal and, as well as reflecting his personal experience, stem from Barton’s interest in neuroscience.

“Everything I’ve been working on with neuroscience is exploring how the sense of our whole selves is an illusion.  We’re just a load of fragments that we then think of as a whole.  The closest we can get to being our whole selves is when we listen to music or make music, because more of us is engaged in that than anything else. It doesn’t matter that my Grandpa lost his memories, it doesn’t matter that my Grandma can’t remember where she was at certain times.  What matters is that you have these really deep sense-based fragments that you’ve given to other people.  Even as Alzheimer’s decays the brain, it doesn’t decay that, and, if that’s your afterlife, if that’s your underworld, the shards that you’ve left in other people, then if you’ve had a good life, and you’ve been a loving person, your afterlife is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Part of the narrative of STYX involves an overlap between one of Barton’s own compositions and one that his Grandfather wrote before Barton was born.  Barton only discovered his Grandfather’s composition during his conversations with his Grandmother and, while we won’t go into the detail here, because the story is told much more eloquently in STYX and — well, you should just go see it — Barton’s reflections on the significance of his discovery open up myriad scientific, philosophical and spiritual questions.

“You’ve left behind little pieces in other people’s brains, that are warm, or fuzzy, or that smell or taste a certain way, and I think that’s the message of the piece.  It’s woven through this music and these interviews.  It’s about making peace with the idea that we may lose our memories.  We may think that’s us, that we are just the product of everything we’ve experienced, but I think we’re so much more than that and I think we still exist well beyond the loss of that.  That’s what this (Styx) has become as a piece of theatre.”

Barton isn’t only talking about memory here.  He’s talking about the physics that hold together the universe and make our existence possible, along with the possibility that the base particles that make up all of us can transfer, even across aeons, information that becomes part of us as individuals and part of our collective experience of existence.  Barton is also speculating on the role of epigenetics in forming human experience and echoing it through the generations.

If we examine the production’s references to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s no coincidence that Orpehus was the equivalent of the world’s first guitar hero.  According to the legend, we’re still hearing Orpheus’s music today and that’s perhaps, partly, because it’s coded into our DNA.

Certainly, for Barton, there is no such thing as coincidence.

“We know so little that there will be things that feel like magic, that some day we’ll be able to explain.   Things only feel like magic because science hasn’t found a way to explain them yet.  My religion is possibility, the science of possibilities.  There are so many avenues we haven’t researched.  What quantum physics does to our understanding of the world is so vast that it changes everything.  And, our understanding of neuroscience, as we gradually get deeper into that ocean of understanding, it completely changes everything.  It is absolutely possible that fragments of who we are can be shared, through genetics and through experiences.  It’s possible that we can share a music spirit.”

Barton is an extraordinary creative.  If you’re feeling lost in the vast recesses of his mind, fear not.  STYX is a highly accessible 60-minute trip through the wires of human existence.  It neither labours nor forces upon its audience the depth and consequences of Barton’s narrative.  Sure, it makes you think about your own existence and where you might end up when it’s time to go.  But it’ll also make you think about how, as humans, there is a uniting force that sticks us all together, rather than drives us apart. And, in large part, that force is music.

Watching STYX earlier this year I was immediately reminded of the despair of my Mother’s final years, but I also carried with me the image of her dancing to Tom Jones and was able to take comfort from the connection that music gave us and still does.

STYX is about the sharing of spirit.  It’s a bloody good show, even if it does force you to think about stuff you’d probably rather just continued to exist at a sub-atomic level.  And, if you stick around at the end of the show, you may even get the chance to share a glass of whisky with the cast and feel the warmth of this spirit tripping through your own wires as it writes the experience you’ve just had into your DNA.

STYX will play at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in London in August and September this year.  You can help get the Perth contingent of performers to the UK by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign here.

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