Friday, September 7, 2012

'Carnesky's Tarot Drome' at the Old Vic Tunnels, 5th September 2012

Entering the hot, musty, enclosed space of the Old Vic Tunnels feels like making a trip into the underworld. The curved rooftops and graffiti pull the walls in around you and the faint rumbling of the trains passing overhead is a constant reminder that you're deep under the streets of London.  Every time I'm here I find it hard to shake the thought that I'm trespassing, that I'm somewhere I shouldn't be.  The ideal environment then for an exploration of the mystic, a good place to "dissolve the barrier between consciousness and unconsciousness", to explore the symbolism of the tarot.

I'm no believer in fate; I certainly don't think some deck of cards is going to tell me what is and isn't going to happen in my life.  On the other hand, I do enjoy the symbolism and poetic nature of the cards.  The idea behind 'Carnesky's Tarot Drome' is to explore the Major Arcana: each card is embodied in a performer, and we either watch them perform or interact with them directly.  In practise this means the night is a cross between performance art and cabaret theatre.

The entrance.
Having entered the tunnels we're greeted by a bar and a large wrestling ring with two women stood at either end.   Not much is happening at the moment, and to be honest, this part of the night is a little boring.  Most of the space is blocked off while the performers get ready, and this means there's no access to toilet facilities.  It's not a great start to the evening to be honest, people mill about near the big entrance sign hopping up and down and crossing their legs, waiting for the permission to let us in.

Maria Carnesky as 'The World'
This order doesn't come for quite a while, and before this we're given an introduction to the tarot by Marisa Carnesky, playing 'The World'.  Dressed in a dramatic gold winged head-dress she looks suitably mystical.  She prowls around the stage, explaining to us in portentous tones about the power of the tarot, and about the journey we'll go on tonight.  As she does the first reading she wraps the cards around herself; it's a dramatic image.  This atmospheric introduction raises my hopes pretty high, if all the performers are as commanding as this it'll be one hell of a night.

The audience is then divided into two, and my half is sent off with 'The Hermit'.  We move through the giant wooden entrance and into a room full of brightly costumed figures representing different cards.  Each card is either performing an appropriate cabaret act, or is a miniature performance art piece in its own right. 

'The High Priestess'
To my left is 'The High Priestess'.  She stands supernaturally tall, with a huge pale blue wing-like cloak spreading out around her.  Members of the audience take it in turns to approach her, as they step up to her plinth she sweeps her arms into the air, drawing her cloak around you.   There's a dramatic rush of air, and you can't help but meet her wide-eyed stare with reverence.  Her heavy eye make-up accentuates the power of this she gives you.  Enveloping you in her cloak she opens her chest, revealing glittering jewels and an ornate heart glistening in the middle.  She peels the top from the heart, and you reach in and pull a piece of paper out.  Each piece of paper has a fairly long hand-written fortune on it.  Even though she's doing the same short routine over and over again it's impossible not to feel awed when you're the one standing within her cloak, reaching up for that fortune.  

Rhyannon Styles as 'The Chariot'
In the middle of the room, and a little more chatty than the others is 'The Chariot'.  Played by Rhyannon Styles, performer and dancer, The Chariot explains to us about the power of self-transformation.  Why has she been picked to be this card?  The Chariot symbolises willpower, hard-won victory, a marriage of opposites, self-reliance and conviction.  As Styles is a trans-woman undergoing the transition process it feels more than appropriate.  The message she tells us of personal transformation is therefore especially powerful coming from her mouth, and the fact that she looks so stunning in the blue finery of the chariot costume underlines this power.

'The Magician'
To her left is 'The Magician', performing a classic sword routine.  His glamorous assistant climbs into a box, and he dramatically pierces it with sword after sword.  Surely she must be sliced to pieces inside!  She miraculously emerges unscathed soon afterwards.  This trick, while very well executed maybe suffers a little from being performed in such close proximity to the audience.  It's fairly obvious how the illusion is achieved, but then I guess contortions required to even present the image of the empty box are worthy of praise in themselves.

'The Empress'
Sitting to the right of the room is 'The Empress'.  She wears an absolutely stunning multi-armed costume of the Hindu Goddess Durga.  She conducts herself utterly regally, and like The High Priestess, just catching The Empress' eye instils a feeling of awe.  It is quite strange how quickly everyone begins treating these performers, and an almost religious reverence surrounds those around her.  When people approach her she extends a hand with ripe fruit in it, and encourages you to take a bite.  With juice running down your chin, and her looking beatifically on, the performance takes on strong maternal themes - appropriate enough for a manifestation of a card that is said to represent abundance, comfort and fertility.

Chi Chi Revolver as 'The Wheel of Fortune'
Beyond the arches is 'The Wheel of Fortune'.  This is embodied by performer Chi Chi Revolver, Guinness World Record holding hula hoop artist.  She stands in the centre of the wheel, multiple hoops spinning around her body as the wheel turns beneath.  The wheel is covered in interesting miniature sculptures; a double-headed werewolf mask, a scorpion with a baby doll's head.  The hula hooping is undoubtedly impressive, and the wheel itself is an interesting object to examine but I couldn't work out how (apart from the spinning aspect) the two were related to each other.  Was there some kind of prize involved in it?  Maybe I missed something here.

'The Hermit'
'The Hermit' occupied another space, with a large curtained tent containing pieces of fabric for audience members to clothe themselves with.  It was a nice concept, but there seemed to be a bit of a wait to get into it and I'd become a little conscious that time might be running out.

'The Tower'
In an adjoining room were more performers.  'The Tower' was, predictably, very tall.  As I approached her she beckoned me over, took my hand and stamped a date upon it.  I'm not exactly sure what I was to take away from this.  The Tower card traditionally represents themes of downfall and destruction, or failure and ruin.  Either way, I doubt the date she gave me was a portent of anything positive.  Fortunately for me, the stamp on my hand came out blurred and illegible so whatever it was remains a mystery to me.  

By the time I'd reached this room it I was a little late to the party.  'Death' was nowhere to be found, and although there was a large tub of water in the centre of the room labelled 'Temperance' no performer was to be found.  Standing near this was 'Justice', who stood in the classic 'Lady Justice' pose with scales.  The costume was pretty magnificent, although this suffered from the fact that she didn't really seem to be doing anything.  I later learned that this performer is in fact a highly qualified lawyer, which adds an interesting dynamic to the proceedings.  It's a shame that I didn't pick up on this during the performance.

'The Emperor' (with 'The Hierophant in the background)
After this we were summoned back to the central arena to witness a grudge match between 'The Emperor' and 'Strength'.  'The Hierophant' was compering, hyping the crowd up in a spectacular purple suit.  'The Emperor' was represented by a muscled, cloaked luchador.  He was explicitly outlined as a manifestation of the establishment and the 'bad guy'.  His cloak was lined with Union Jacks, a brave decision coming over a summer when the flag seems to be being waved more than ever.  He strutted around the stage, playing the heel to perfection, goading and taunting the crowd.  His opponent, 'Strength' was a tough looking leotarded woman, with a shock of blonde hair poking from the top of her head.  She got the crowd on side very quickly with a right-on speech about personal freedom, culminating in a yell of 'Free Pussy Riot!'.

I was at ringside as the bout kicked off, and found it unexpectedly thrilling.  I've never seen any kind of professional wrestling before, and feeling the palpable thud as a body hits the mat was remarkably fun.  It's easy to get swept up in the excitement, allowing yourself to participate in the shared delusion that's real.  It's almost like pantomime in a way, the crowd shouts "He's behind you!" as the Emperor sneaks up behind Strength with a chain wrapped around his hand.  

'The Emperor' on a leash.
Inevitably, Strength comes out on top (it would have been a bit depressing if she'd lost).  She removes the Emperor's luchador mask, and places it on her head.  I think this is intended as a symbol of her co-opting his authority and power for her own ends.  Either way, it's a nice end to the match.  The crowd throws streamers over the fallen Emperor, chaining him to the ground, further draining his power and reducing him to the status of our collective prisoner.

'The Emperor' in chains.
After this we're ushered through to an auditorium, where we watch more of a traditional cabaret show.  'The Fool', imagined as a glam rock singer in a sparkling suit serenades us, and soon the stage is filled with roller-skating girls in clocks performing complex routines to music.  This section of the show doesn't work as well as the rest, and given the interactive nature of what we've seen before, being forced into a traditional audience role feels a little restricting.  As far as endings go it unfortunately is a bit of an anticlimax.  The rollerskaters, talented as they are, seem to go on forever with very little variety other than costume changes.  After this, we're unceremoniously funnelled out onto the street.  It feels like an abrupt end to the evening, and we're not really given a chance to decompress before being thrust into the real world again.

The rollerskating girls
While I did have a good time, I think that this is more interesting cabaret than an examination of what the tarot means.  While this event certainly was entertaining and fun, it billed itself as a way to interact with the mystic, and to examine how it could be relevant to us.  Rather than use cabaret and entertainment as a delivery method for this mysticism, it was more the opposite.  The tarot theme ultimately felt a bit superficial, merely a way to link all of these different acts in one night.  

If this event had kept the same spirit as I saw with the interactive performers early on, where I was free to wander and interact with them how I pleased then I would have enjoyed it far more.  It was frustrating that this ended unexpectedly - there was no warning that we was about to transform from participants to spectators.  When the show finished I was a little disappointed - I didn't feel like I'd had enough time to see as much as I wanted to.

Despite these misgivings, it was a show well worth seeing, and I'd definitely attend another Carnesky night.  The sense of style and showmanship is far beyond most cabaret nights you could attend.  It contained some of the most interesting and striking costume design that I've seen, something improved by the fact that in most instances you can get very close to the performers and see the intricate detailing.  

I couldn't say that I learned much from this experience, or that it gave me a new perspective on the tarot or an appreciation of a mystical worldview.  I can say that for the majority of time there I was both excited and entertained.  It's a fine spectacle, but don't go expecting anything more substantial.

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