Becoming Shades by Chivaree Circus is one of the few full eight-week runs at this year’s VAULT Festival – an immersive, contemporary circus based around Persephone’s journey to the underworld and her consequent transformation into the Queen of the Shades.
Anyone who has ever frequented the VAULTs before is probably more than aware of the suitability of the venue for an Underworld-themed immersive caper. As much as I adore VAULT Festival (and god do I adore VAULT Festival) it’s hard to deny that the spaces themselves can be made to resemble hellish conditions with worrying ease. Damp walls and the dark rumble of trains overhead greet us as we make our way into the cavern, clad in black surgical masks (a la Punchdrunk) and with a bug-like Charon shuttling us into the gloom.
And it’s a pretty damn wonderful show. Even for the biggest of the available spaces The Forge isn’t huge, and yet the all-female performers interact and avoid like pros, close enough to see the sheen of sweat on their skins but yet distant enough to keep the Underworld mystery alive. Circus this close-up is wonderfully engrossing stuff, managing to stay epic (the way that circus should be) but nonetheless allowing us a personal experience with the performers that isn’t usually present in the larger circus tops. This is particularly true in some astounding aerial numbers which make up the backbone of the piece – a ring swirling from the ceiling on fire, two shady figures looping and twirling amidst the flickering shadows (the lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun is remarkable), dancing seeming effortlessly in an almost hypnotic flow. The glorious live music by Sam West and Becks Johnstone is equally instrumental in developing the atmosphere – West’s grumbling tones providing the base for Johnstone’s haunting, quasi-operatic melodies.
With stuff this magical and atmospheric making out 95% of the piece, it’s sadly the other 5% that lets the ball drop slightly. While transitioning between different acts we’re presented with some awkwardly comedic fillers, which is where the tension and the alien nature of the world begins to unravel. Having set up the epic-ness and strangeness of this floral/steampunk/hazy world the bizarre comedic undercutting abruptly undermines the slowly threatening feel of the whole, yanking it down from the otherworldly and giving it a misplaced ridiculous sheen. Thankfully, these sections were few and far between, and when emerging blinking into the main VAULT tunnels we retained a distinct feeling of having emerged from another world.