[Review:] TAROT, The Vaults Theatre, London.
Produced by The Feathers of Daedalus Circus and performed at The Vaults in London, Tarot is a seemly blend of cabaret and circus, inspiring outright awe and wonder in its spectators.
The first noticeable feature of this performance is its dark, coherent and slick aesthetic. Costume and set alike are contemporary, gothic and seductive, combining the peculiarities of cabaret with the imagery and ambiance affiliated with tarot readings, a fresh and intelligent vision. So dimly lit and packed full with spectators, the space feels almost claustrophobic, with limited stage space enhancing the incredibility of the acrobatics and gymnastics performed within it. Performers definitely have an astute and trained awareness of the space they are inhabiting, performing with localised and refined, though not in any way inhibited, movements. Performers also ascend to the rigging above, in hoops and on ropes and chains, meaning that space is also expanded beautifully vertically. The only [indirect] issues I really have with this definitive and refined aesthetic are certainly minute. These are the trainers that quite a few of the musicians are wearing, subtracting from the otherwise strong burlesque-meets-hippie-goth vision, and the fact that the Emcee (Ruby Wednesday) exposes the candles as artificial, describing them rather self-knowingly and facetiously as a risk against ‘health and safety’ regulations. With a performance exerting rather psychic themes as tarot, any destruction of illusion whatsoever can only be subtractive and discordant. Other than these small issues, a most remarkable aesthetic of crushed velvet and tight gauze.
On to the performance itself, starting, of course, with the Emcee. The Emcee for this performance plays a peculiar role, mostly retaining the subversive and disruptive profile of the traditional cabaret Emcee but with a distinct twist, the origins of whose origins lie in a contemporary understanding of queerness and gender-bending. This is achieved through the Emcee’s androgyny, dick jokes, overt bi-/pansexuality and, above all, his direct references to his queerness. The only trouble with this, however, is that the Emcee loses his particularity — where the bizarre behaviour and outlandish costuming of the Emcee is traditionally presented as simply accepted and ‘normal’, unchallenged and unreferenced; he simply is and is allowed to be, unquestioned — and discourses surrounding gender and, though less potently, drag performance infiltrate the work in this way, confusing style and genre with extending sociopolitical significance. However, this could be read as though, much like the cabaret of 1930s Berlin, the cabaret influences here are reflecting the modern understanding of queerness and the fluidity of gender and sexuality…but for what cause?
This Emcee retains a certain crazed volatility and unpredictability, cackling madly at times and singing in enigmatic lyric at others, yet his energy is rather low, overall. I would have liked to see more from Ruby, especially during the act that sees him sat cross-legged in a suspended hoop, stopping every so often in the air to the rising music. This particular act, I feel, was most anticlimactic, with all movements being rather lacklustre, repetitive and lethargic, and with the hoop turning in such a way that Ruby would be facing away from us for the entire song. Ruby remains both enchanting and seductive but has insufficient performativity, almost as if he is relying on his look to carry his character. He is certainly comical, with his witty remarks and jokes, but there are definite limitations to this humour, as comedic timing is not a conspicuous strongpoint of his.
Furthermore, there seems to be a lack of preparation for Ruby’s tarot readings, with Ruby visibly finding it difficult to produce cogent and coherent readings for the players. On the night I attended this performance, there was also a notable difference in the way in which he interacted with the first player vs the second, making for a sense of discontinuity in his persona. Ruby remained rather restrictive with this first player, almost reticent, not willing to give too much effort or pizzazz, as though hiding behind the mysteriousness of his persona; yet, for the second player, he seemed to come out of himself, losing the mysterious persona altogether and becoming more conversational and informal. It is here, too, that he mentioned that the candles were artificial.
I understand that the trajectories behind these two readings were very different, the first seeming to be guided by allusions to the player‘s relationship troubles and the second concerning the future success or failure of the player’s own performance to be staged soon, also at The Vaults, and so, naturally, the first would be — initially — rather imprecise and cryptic compared to the second, but, ultimately, with good planning and effort, this should make no difference. Ruby stated that it is difficult to talk about such intimate issues with players in front of an audience, and, to me, this just seems as though a poor excuse for a vapid reading. It should be remembered that this is not just an everyday tarot reading where privacy is key but one within the context of a performance, a shared and communal experience, and, moreover, a reading upon which the performance, if momentarily, depends. Ruby should be willing to push audience members to divulge these informations in this way if these are the very subject of the reading, otherwise what purpose does the reading serve? What can it possibly uncover or demonstrate? It is highly fallible to design such fragile moments that depend solely on the audience member’s willingness to participate or divulge personal information to be successful — not that Ruby really even attempted to get this information out of the player or to see if this would, indeed, have been appropriate/acceptable in their eyes. In these moments, the audience are given far too much agency, and this agency should be stripped back significantly, if not eliminated entirely, if these readings are to be successful and viable as such integral parts of the performance. I am also curious to know what procedure is in place for when no audience members whatsoever volunteer to have a tarot reading… In performances like these, requesting things of the audience, instead of demanding things of them — especially when the figure of the Emcee is supposed to be daring, enigmatic and, frankly, scary — is most fallible, much like when Ruby asks if the audience members know the suits of tarot, inspiring awkward, tense and stuttering responses.
With regards to the other performers, the acro stunts and formations that we are presented are highly successful in their ability to astound and bewilder. The repertoire devised in this performance is wonderfully varied, full of constant surprises and show-stopping acts. The performers have great poise and presence, equally as alluring, ghostly and seductive as Ruby. However, each of these performers inarguably requires a lot more physical practice, primarily where acro stunts are concerned, being shaky and unrefined in most of their movements as a collective; individually, though, they are very almost perfect. In this way, the seemingly inconceivable and inhuman nature of these acts, as well as their sheer variety, almost begin to captivate us more than the performers’ bodily control and articulacy as an ensemble. Despite the diversity of material, this performance could definitely give a lot more. In this performance, precious, fleeting time is hugely consumed by the performers’ initial interactions with their articles and props, intended for style and effect. Performers each assume a rather animalistic or creaturely stance, usually on all fours, and glare at the ropes, hoops or chains, etc. as though attempting to entrance them. Indeed, this is alluring and hypnotic at first, but it quickly becomes overused, slowing the acts down considerably. There is a lot more that this time could be used for besides these glares and slow, ‘mystical’ movements.
As for the Emcee’s fire art, this is a most unexpected and enthralling way to end the performance, highly successful and efficacious. Again, there are just the recurrent issues of repetitiveness of movement and Ruby’s exposure of artificiality. The beauty and intrigue of fire art have predominantly to do with the proposal of danger, that this is a roaring, ferocious naked flame; so, whilst I understand the subversion and dominance Ruby exerts whilst wiggling his fingers into the fire, pairing this with tracing the flame over the body again and again simply overemphasises the harmlessness of the fire, obliterating any remaining sense of risk, shock and terror affiliated so wonderfully with the art form. The repetition of this becomes, too, time-consuming and bizarre (and not in an effective cabaret-esque manner).
The musicians, which form soul-funk band Yoshi, are most definitely very talented. Their music makes for a consistent style, without motif yet with the same rhythm and tempo and within a consistent genre, adding texture, mood and tone, crescendoing and falling where necessary for drama, tension and suspense. The music is most promising in this way. However, there is a sporadic disturbance in the music which comes to full-fledged fruition towards the end, and this makes for friction not only in the style of the music but in the style of the performance itself. One musician, formerly the pianist and vocalist of the band, takes to a peculiar rapping, preempted by a sluggish “Yo…yo…yo…”. This is both neither a genre the vocalist seems particularly attuned to performing nor a genre pertinent to this performance. In addition, rapping later begins to approximate at points the deliberately over-performative chantings affiliated with vogueing, again calling forward this contemporary discourse of gender performativity where it is not warranted or relevant, and the music thus loses even more integrity. Besides this, however, lyrics remain poignant and eerie, gothic and inspired, and musicians play admirably with casual discipline and controlled fluidity.
As a final note, I found the imagery and symbolism regarding tarot to be rather negligible, which is a huge concept flaw. This entire show –– with omission, of course, of the tarot readings –– could be performed without even a mere allusion to tarot in the slightest. This performance claims to comprise ‘tarot-led circus acts’, but, as I hope to have elucidated above, the relationship between the selected tarot cards, the ‘story’ resulting from these and the circus acts themselves bear no palpable relationship. The performers could just as well hand the Emcee cards with a piece of card detailing the next stunt or act; the Emcee would introduce it; and it would be performed, all in the exact same manner as per the theme of tarot. What is tarot really bringing to this performance that nothing else could? How, specifically, does it modify structure and embellish content in an unequivocal way? What does tarot offer that generic playing cards, for instance, with their suits and figures, could not? This lack of specificity and particularisation of theme is a huge flaw for this performance. Tarot readings in themselves are just as vague. Ruby seems to describe only what the cards signify in themselves as opposed to how this signification might be applied to events in the player’s life. The reading he provides the second player with was definitely more articulate but was more of an artist-to-artist counsel as opposed to valid utilisation of the tarot cards.
Overall, this is a very gripping performance with huge promise and potential. It is a most unique and captivating experience. Its main issue really revolves around its duration; the performance does not leave enough time for the material to mature, nor for us to fully appreciate and digest it. There seem to be several very unique and credulous trajectories at the fundament of the work, yet these remain rather superficial and basic, for they are neither sufficiently developed individually nor combined together as well as they could be. This is truest of the performance’s incorporation of story which remains bland and shallow, a poor excuse to merely loosely contextualise the circus acts presented. The Feathers Daedalus Circus need to find a preciser, creative and tailored way to imagine and contextualise storytelling within this performance, or it needs to be eliminated completely. As it stands, a few cards are singled out –– e.g. the fool, the lovers, the hierophant, etc. –– and these each inspire the circus acts presented; there is no such story present here. Specific decisions, such as providing audience members with a tarot card each or even the tarot readings, need to be more complex and have an actual, readable and poignant impact on the performance. These elements need to feel necessary, not simple time-fillers, bonuses or superfluous oddities but obligatory, unmissable factors, nay determinants, of the performance. Such developments in these elements will progress them from merely aesthetic and omittable to fundamental elements of a cohesive and decisive performance.