The Vaults, London – until 18 March 2018
Under the railway arches of Waterloo, lie the catacomb caverns of Vault Festival. Donning black gauze masks for our mouth and nose, we are led into the underworld poetry of Becoming Shades, a moving dream of Persephone’s journey into Hades from the creative team of Chivaree Circus and Upstage Creative.
This is the third incarnation of the show (and the first I’ve seen), which previously appeared in a shorter form at last year’s Vault Festival for a five-day run, and in an end-on experiment for Jackson’s Lane studio theatre in 2016.
This year’s development takes an elegant leap, headlining the festival programme for two months with 90 minutes of hot and hazy promenade circus-theatre, including an interval where the performers continue to inhabit the space around us and the in-house bar, maintaining some of the spirit of the show as drinks are sipped and normal conversations resume for a while.
I was thrilled to receive a CD with some of the show’s music to take home, as the haunting Gaelic voice of Becks Johnstone singing live to the acoustic guitar or bass-filled ambient dance compositions of Sam West is a key presence throughout the spectral evening.
The songs bring an emotional quality to the vignettes of the dead that leave tears plastering my cheeks more than once. The underground club vibe of electronic instrumental tracks powers the aerial angst and flaming choreographies of fire fans that situate us in this particular hell.
What sticks with me are images and, over the course of the evening, these coalesce into a sense of what the show means to me. There are three hell hounds, somewhere between the re-embodied heads of Cerberus and the Egyptian guardian of the afterlife Anubis. There is a twitching, phosphorescent bug-headed Charon, who welcomes our crush of bodies into the underworld and acts as a kind of caretaker to this place, shooing us on with illuminated fingertips.
Then there is Persephone. But not just one. There is the Persephone of arriving, shock and sorrow. There is the Persephone of fight, thrashing against this enforced purgatory. There is the Persephone of escape, who heads back out to the sunshine for a short time each year before the cycle begins again. Charon as well, it seems, is the Persephone of long-term incarceration, who has become a part of the shadow world with memories of her former life slipping like sands through an hourglass. One for each season.
The programme might name them differently, but the ultimate tale of strength and dignity, survival and adaptation shines through the loose tethers of mythic framing.
As audience, we are ushered around the space by the cast and other black-masked crew. The heat inside the venue means many remove the hygiene coverings we’ve been given, but I keep mine on, enjoying the feeling of communal anonymity that paints us as a chorus of lost souls, and unwilling to risk the potential penalty of ignoring Death’s rules. I know how these Greek myths go.
We form a boat to ferry Persephone (Rebecca Rennison) across the Styx. We take part in candle-lit mourning vigils. We watch frantic shiny pole thrashing from Anna McDonnell as she is taunted by the hell-hounds Rosie Bartley, Isobel Midnight and Jessica Pearce. Half playful, half vicious, the trio form a strong ensemble that juggle, stomp and breathe fire as well as providing more interactive relief during the interval section. We also laugh at a mime sequence from Molly Beth Morosa, who wears the Charon mask, as she tries to learn how to tame the wild three. Alfa Marks is the final member of the cast, pitched in a battle of wills and desires against Rennison’s Persephone in acrobatic dance and an intricate aerial silks duet.
The design team of Carlotta Caball, Black Lune (costume) and Jessica Hung Han Yun (lights) have created a world that blends nature, classicism and cyberpunk effects into a unique and timeless Hades that I, for one, would be content to return to. We are clearly directed where to watch, and I never struggle with sightlines as we move about the space to follow the distinct scenes. The break of an interval feels a little disconnected from the carefully established atmosphere, but I can tell myself that the little slice of familiar life punctuating the darker oddities of the underworld is a reflection of Persephone’s own brief sojourns home to the land of the living.
Chivaree Circus have been producing bespoke events and festival experiences since 2012 and Becoming Shades, directed by co-founder Laurane Marchive, harnesses that expertise into a sensation-driven full-length production that subtly showcases women’s subterranean strengths through an archetypal figure of classic mythology.