Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: 'Becoming Shades' at Vault Festival, 1st February 2018

Becoming Shades reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The Vaults underneath Waterloo make for a great Hades. The arched ceilings, damp dripping down the walls and trains distantly overhead rumbling overhead do a lot of legwork in Chivaree Circus and Upstage Creative's Becoming Shades - in which the audience becomes lost souls amidst the hellhounds, pomegranate seeds and enigmatic boatmen of the Greek afterlife.

A loose retelling of the myth of Persephone, the show consists of various circus acts performed by an all-female company scattered around Vault Festival's biggest venue. So, we might huddle around a performer doing a piece of interpretative dance, then be hustled over to another part of the room where we take in an acrobatics act and so on. Impressively, this is all musically accompanied by a live duo, Sam West and Becks Johnstone, the latter of which is such a talented vocalist that it feels a bit odd to have your back to her whilst she performs.

The show bills itself as immersive theatre but, like most shows that claim this, it isn't. Instead, it's more of a promenade piece. Though we're poked and prodded by staff who make sure we're not blundering into the fire-eaters, this is an almost entirely passive experience in which we sit down, shut up and watch people do stuff. That the show isn't interactive isn't necessarily a criticism, but "immersive" is quickly becoming a meaningless marketing buzzword and I wish shows would stop diluting the concept.

Becoming Shades also claims to be a "female story of empowerment", which is also a bit debatable. On the face of it, the Persephone myth isn't particularly progressive: a woman abducted and forcibly married, who has little agency of her own within the story. Chivaree Circus zeroes in on the imagery of a busted open pomegranate as a symbol of female sexual power, eventually reincarnating Persephone as a Queenly fertility goddess in full command of her own sexuality (she then twirls around on a flaming yonic hula hoop to really hammer the point home). 

That's all well and good, though I'm always sceptical of shows about female empowerment that also feature attractive women in skimpy outfits doing hi-octane pole-dancing routines to dubstep. I get that doing this reclaims misogynist imagery and subverts masturbatory objectification, but y'know, it's still a sexy pole dancing routine.

Stuff like that feeds into a subtle but damaging disconnect between narrative and form. Essentially the show feels like a vehicle for various circus routines around which Greek myth and imagery have been stapled rather than the two properly tesselating. That contributes to an emotional disconnect that makes it difficult to care what's happening.

What's left is an okay circus show. The general atmosphere and dramatic lighting of the venue is effective, but while there's nothing objectively wrong with the acrobatics, there is also nothing that audiences who've seen a couple of circus shows won't have seen before. My barometer for a successful circus performance is when the audience spontaneously gasps and applauds during a piece, so impressed that they cannot help but react. This happens once or twice over the course of the night, but in general things are a bit muted.

Then there's the little gripes. Constantly being asked to sit down, stand up and being herded around the room every couple of minutes quickly gets old. The expectation that you're to wear a surgical mask for the entire show is annoying (most people discard theirs early on). And the wub-wub-wub dubstep effects on the soundtrack are a bit dated in 2018.

Becoming Shades isn't a bad show but it never comes together in a satisfying way; ending up as a collection of disparate elements that awkwardly rub up against one another. At £30 a ticket it's one of the more expensive (possibly the most expensive) show at the Vaults - if I'd have paid that I'd be feeling a little short-changed.

Becoming Shades is at Vault Festival until 18 March. Tickets here.

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