Image by Maximilian Webster
Becoming Shades – Chivaree Circus, VAULT Festival, London
Deep under Waterloo Station in the darkest recesses of the Vaults is the Forge, a damp, echoing, cave-like space. Reached by weaving through the crowds and the enchanted spaces of the VAULT Festival to the very back, it is the ideal space for Chivaree Circus’s recreation of Persephone’s journey into the Underworld, a story told through contortions, acrobatics, rope-work and spinning silks, fire and neon.
The story of Persephone, forced by Hades to spend half the year in Underworld while the Earth toils through winter, is the core myth for deep January. Becoming Shades is a promenade performance, and the cast marshal the audience from scene to scene around the barrel-like station undercroft. Charon (Moly Beth Morosa), an HR Geiger creature with neon hands and eyes, acts as our guide while live music is performed by the duo of Sam West and Becks Johnstone, whose voice is deliciously smoky. The look is a dark, late 1980s club: sides are shaved high, basques are worn and costumes would not look out of place in Cybergoth. The audience are supplied with black surgical masks, and games of chance take place is side during the interval, with strong hints of Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death.
Chivaree is an all-female circus troupe set by Edward Gosling and Laurane Marchive, who directs. The narrative frame is really an excuse to show off the jaw-dropping skills of the performers. While the comic relief scenes filling the space between set piece performances are of limited interest, the main attractions are worth every penny. As soon as a performer casually bends into a slow motion back flip, as though out for an afternoon stroll, it is clear we are in for something special. What follows is a display of skills beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals, most definitely otherworldly. Rosie Bartley, Isobel Midnight and Jessica Pearce juggle many-branched spinning torches, taking the occasional gulp of flame. Anna McDonnell displays awesome strength and agility on the pole. Rebecca Rennison and Alfa Marks slide, split and fly on ropes and aerial silks, and a finale which involves spinning on a wheel of fire supported only by the neck (see above) has the audience gasping.
After last year’s No Show which highlighted the frustrations of female circus artists, the presence of such skilled performers in a show devised for them feels like the future of circus. Becoming Shades is strong on atmosphere, but has its limitations as an integrated piece of theatre. However, the abilities of the performers, twisting and tumbling high above the crowd, have to be seen to be believed.