Becoming Shades, at the Vault Festival (review)

The ‘dark, immersive circus’ Becoming Shades by Chivaree Circus is one of the headline shows at the Vault Festival, and plays for the full, extended eight weeks this year, in the rabbit warren of spaces underneath Waterloo Station.

As we file into the performance space at one end of the Vaults, known as the Forge, we are given masks to put over our mouths and asked to keep them on throughout (which lasts about ten minutes but in the dark, dank warehouse it does start off a tense atmosphere). We crowd into one end of the room until three hellhounds in corsets and lit-up collars (who we find out to be Furies) emerge and start to stand guard. The rope restraining us is taken away and Charon (Molly Beth Morosa, in fully-enclosed head gear and lit-up eyes which remind one of a gas mask) allows us into the main space, or in other words the underworld.

Apart from a voiceover and a couple of stilted interludes which try but fail to be comic, and the beautiful singing voices of Sam West (sound designer and composer) and Becks Johnstone, there are no words. We must glean what we can from a series of scenes that take place in different areas of the warehouse, into which we are ushered by the Furies.  Sometimes the voiceless beckoning becomes ridiculous as we are not sure where we are meant to go, and in typical reticence we hang back a bit. What narrative there is is around the myth of Persephone. I would not have understood much more if it weren’t for the programme notes, but Becoming Shades is more about the atmosphere and the performance than the story.

Unlike in the original story, Persephone (Rebecca Rennison) is the hero, and the cast here is 100% female. Muscular, strong, agile, Persephone and Hades (the stunning Alfa Marks) compete with each other in a series of tussles, dangerously high up on ropes, performing aerial acrobatics or dancing with fire. Their acrobatic skills are second to none though at times I found myself wondering what the health and safety situation was.  The Furies also perform a dance whilst spinning ropes which are burning with fire, and the choreography and symmetry (let alone the daring and talent) of this is impressive, all to the background of the haunting soundscape, composed specially for the piece by West. When it comes to Persephone spinning in and out of the ring of fire, way above our heads (as pictured), it really is the most astonishing sight.

Becoming Shades at VAULT Festival 2018 (courtesy Maximilian Webster) 2

Chivaree Circus’ Becoming Shades: Photo credit Maximilian Webster

As seems common these days, members of the audience are asked to join in, by holding tealights and torches to light the way, and Becoming Shades is billed as an ‘adventure’ for the audience.  I, however, was more keen to watch, as an outsider, not be asked to understand anything, but just to enjoy my own visceral reaction to the wonderful strength, suppleness and power of these heroic women.

hattydaze rating: ***/*****

Becoming Shades by Chivaree Circus plays at the Vault Festival until 24th March. I attended thanks to press tickets. For more details and to book tickets, check the website here.

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