As a first-time visitor to the Vaults Festival, I honestly don’t think I could have chosen a production that fits the Vaults’ atmosphere better than The Feathers Of Deadalus’s seductive, spellbinding circus-music-tarot reading hybrid.
Everything about this performance is evocative, even before the production begins. From the red drapes and slight scent of incense when entering the space, to the lighting – all shadows cast by candles and red neon lights – everything is infused with a sense of decadence and even illicitness. It is the kind of atmosphere which produces an electric charge under the skin. This show is definitely the kind that works best at night, and underground. It’s dark and tempting; like the desire to discover your future in a pack of cards.
“It’s dark and tempting; like the desire to discover your future in a pack of cards.”
What begins, is an hour of captivating and death- (or at least major damage to expensive technical equipment)- defying circus acts themed around the Tarot cards, interwoven with the elegantly menacing compere Ruby Wednesday explaining the meaning of the different symbols, interacting with the performers and doing live tarot readings for audience members.
The performers (hand balancer, Imogen Huzel; gender-bending acrobatic double act, Josh Frazer and Tessa Blackman; and aerialist, Lauren Jamieson) are incredible. . . hands-over-mouth incredible and absolutely terrifying to watch in such a tiny space. Seeing one artist nearly hit a speaker, I really do pray for the nerves of the show’s producer and tech manager. With silks, hoops, solo and group acrobatics where performers flow over each other like water and an unexpectedly fiery ending, Tarot is mesmerising to watch.
The performance is accompanied live on stage by the incredibly aesthetic band soul-funk band Yoshi. Armed with a litany of instruments from a synthesizer to a saxophone to some kind of hang drum, the band offers an incredible and energetic score to the piece. The music flits between smoky jazz to heavy rock and even ventures into a type of rap, with disjointed and jarring melodies that put you on edge, fitting perfectly with the pulse of the production. Also, allow me to give a brief shout-out here to the saxophonist who looked like the ghost of a Victorian Tim Minchin.
“Performers flow over each other like water”
However, if the music was disjointed so were some of the production’s narrative elements; especially when it came to the tarot theme. Personally, I have not come across tarot a lot in my life – apart from one time when I was ten and trick-or-treating when a woman was giving out free tarot readings instead of sweet treats – but I have always been interested in learning more. And while there was enough tarot to peak interest, there was not enough explanation to satisfy a newbie like me, and I had to do a quick Google after the performance to double check what things like the major arcana were. The Tarot itself added flavour and framing, but the circus element definitely felt more emphasised than the Tarot.
The production was sold as one where the audience’s tarot readings would guide the performance, but instead they felt like very different parts of the production. The audience enter to find Tarot cards on their seats, something which is never mentioned in the production itself, and while members of the audience are bought on stage for readings and the artists in the background perform routines influenced by the cards revealed, this did not seem to influence the production as a whole. In the beginning we are introduced to the Fool, one of the most powerful cards in the deck, and whose story we will be following. But, while the Fool haunts the production, flitting on and off with new cards deciding the next circus performance, the narrative arc I expected was not there. This meant that the production just sort of ended, without arc or conclusion. The production itself was brilliant, without a doubt. But it felt more planned out and less tightly woven together than I had hoped.
“Like a piece of dark chocolate: a treat dripping in decadence”
However, the performance did reveal that tarot speaks to a grand narrative, a desire to find order in the everyday and that the cards themselves – even Death or the Devil – are not evil in themselves, but merely represent the beginning and end of a cycle. This element was, even in the spooky atmosphere of the performance, oddly comforting.
Tarot also swings between danger and irreverence, a mutability personified by the charismatic host Ruby Wednesday – who also happened to have some of the best eyeliner I’ve even seen. Gliding about the stage and guiding the audience through the world of tarot, they fluctuated between being a threatening and fantastical figure (with a terrifying cackle and a smouldering singing voice) to being more comedic and prosaic – cutting through the eerie atmosphere of the tarot reading by telling the audience member shuffling the cards: “If you bend my cards, I will end you”. This switch, however, to umming and cracking jokes made them seem almost unsure of themselves, which broke the tension and dropped the energy of the readings slightly.
Ruby Wednesday is undoubtedly a talented performer, but one who needs more confidence in their improvisation skills. Tarot felt like a piece of dark chocolate: a treat dripping in decadence, revelling in its own glamour. Go and see it if you want to see an incredibly talented ensemble and acquire a working knowledge of tarot – and who knows? You might find the answers you were looking for.
Tarot runs at Forge until 1st February 2020.