IMOGEN GODDARD reviews Becoming Shades at the VAULT Festival.

Part of the VAULT Festival 2018, Becoming Shades (directed by Laurane Marchive) is described as an all-female circus troupe of four performance retelling the classical myth of Persephone in Hades. The production adapts traditional circus to complement the unique aurora of the Vaults, and loosens the relationship between performer and spectator to create an immersive experience in the depths of hell.

The underground tunnels are particularly appropriate for Becoming Shades’s hellish setting – walking down the graffiti-stained stairs and darkened corridor to the performance space is the perfect welcome into Hades. Intrigue is tinged with anxiety as the audience is instructed to wear a black mask covering the mouth and nose for the entirety of the performance – we become creatures of the underworld along with the characters.

This particular vault is a large high-ceilinged room at the end of one of the tunnels, a mostly empty space sparsely decorated with an odd table, a pole, and raised viewing platforms at either end. The audience disperses around the room with the performers, viewing the action on stage from different angles. The tunnel, as opposed to the traditional circus tent, particularly complements the show’s narrative and aesthetic: the audience is wholly immersed in the hellish setting, creating a stifling atmosphere.

Photo courtesy of Maximilian Webster.

The performance begins as three women – hellhounds – emerge from the shadows and stare into the crowd, holding unsettlingly prolonged eye contact. They act as the guides, shepherding the audience around the room for the various acts and during the interval are clowns, mingling with the audience and vying for attention – particularly startlingly, one of them extinguishes a flame in her mouth. The bulk of the show is a selection of acrobatic and dance sequences, increasingly impressive and extravagant. The standout performance comes just before the interval when two of the characters swing from a ribbon attached to the ceiling. They scale the cloth, intertwining themselves in jaw dropping performances of both talent and trust, as they hang off each other, their bodies held together by just one hand. The finale is just as mesmerising as Persephone (Rebecca Rennison) is spun around in a ring of fire, at one point holding on with nothing more than her neck. These performances are set against the musical duo of a semi-operatic female singer and a bass guitarist. Her angelic voice and soft melodic line act in contrast to the chord progression, this unusual blending of genres creating a slight sense of unease, exacerbating the ethereal quality of the whole performance.

The scenes that do not work so well are those without the daring acrobatics. At one point the musicians’ stage becomes an altar and audience members are invited to place candles at the singer’s feet, but this lags a little compared to the entrancing movement routines. Indeed, it is when the focus becomes preoccupied with narrative that the momentum suffers, since this aspect is ultimately subsidiary to the circus acts themselves. We are unsure who each character is — but this is irrelevant to the show’s success; the characters blend and merge together as the audience concentrates on what they do rather than who they are. Towards the end of the performance, one of the women, who we now deduce for certain to be Persephone, is crowned Queen of Hades in a dark parody of a traditional coronation, wearing a long black cape and carrying a twig and dried pomegranate as the sceptre and orb. The plot-based scene, though slower, does leave room for exhibiting the stunning costumes, and launches rapidly into the finale scene, reclaiming our attention.

Photo courtesy of Maximilian Webster.

Becoming Shades is ethereal and enchanting. In this show, the immersive elements work with the performative to bring us as close as we can get to the performers while maintaining a natural detachment through the staggering complexity of the movement routines, which situate us as observers rather than participants. Though the plot can be a weight on the show’s pace, it also roots the production in the beautifully constructed hell that is so captivating. The show stands independent of its plot as a piece of exciting and immersive circus theatre.

Becoming Shades is running until 18th March. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Maximilian Webster.