On Saturday morning, I caught the train from the sunny idyll of Dorset up to London and, alighting at Waterloo Station, I felt the cold reality of the dirty, rushing metropolitan life of the city blow towards me down the platform. Nearing the ticket barrier, I looked down onto the small section of track between the front of the train and the buffer stops, as I always reflexively do. I was taken aback to see a large dead bird there, and, surprised, it took me a second to assimilate that it was in fact an owl. I've seen plenty of flat dead birds in my time, but never an owl. It felt very strange, seeing this majestic creature that one would normally only see on television, or in captivity, bereft not only of the cover of night, its secrecy and mystery, but also of its life. Its wings spread wide, it was nearly completely flat. I wondered how it had got there.
I was only in London for a day, and was therefore very pleased to find that the short run of Marisa Canesky's new immersive theatre thing, Carnesky's Tarot Drome, coincided with my visit. I'd heard about her Ghost Train a few years back, and had thought it sounded fantastic, but had been unable to get to it. This new show features an eclectic cast of multi-disciplined performers each portraying a card from the major arcana of the tarot, which is one of my favourite books ever (as well as something I've been exploring in my artwork for the past five years)!
So it was that I found myself, along with a few friends, leaving the surface world behind Waterloo Station to descend into the graffiti-illuminated catacombs beneath, where, through a fire-door or two, we would experience the Tarot Drome show.
Once within the atmospheric, vault-like arches of the Old Vic Tunnels, the evening began with an introduction from Marisa Carnesky, holding court in a full-sized wrestling ring. The first two cards were drawn, and then the audience was directed into a series of adjoining rooms, where they were then free to wander between the various performers. This cleverly introduced a random element akin to a real tarot reading - it was up to the audience to decide which performers they watched or interacted with, a selection process further complicated by some cards being harder to find (The Hermit) or attracting large crowds or queues (The High Priestess).
There was no pressure to interact directly with any of the performers, and there was more than enough impressive imagery, costume, set design and performance on show to keep a politely-detached audience member perfectly satisfied - Nina Felia's Death immediately drew a large crowd with her gracefully balletic contortions before a fan of skulls and bones. However, I can't help feeling that a more direct interaction with the performers and their prescribed rituals was essential for a fully satisfactory divinatory experience.
One of the golden rules of tarot readings (according to my copy of Tarot For Beginners) is that the subject must freely choose to have the reading, without any kind of coercion. I don't see this as based in superstition, along the lines of evil spirits only being allowed to enter a house by invitation, so much as a simple acknowledgement of the fact that someone who is not interested in engaging with and exploring the symbolism of the tarot in relation to their self is far less likely to get anything from it. In this respect, I suspect this element of the show was potentially quite challenging for some.
On entering the first room (different parts of the audience began in different rooms), we passed through a curtain of VHS tape. Just that morning on the train, I had been developing a story which has been growing from a song I wrote a few months ago, in which doors made of hair feature prominently (don't ask), and the tape immediately made me think of this. Just beyond this, the first performer we came to was Strength (performed by Hellen Burrough aka Traumata), who was sitting in a bed of hair, and engaging in a ritual with audience members which also involved hair. Now, although hair has obvious symbolic associations with strength, to draw a first card that had such immediate (same day) personal resonance was a bit surprising, so I resolved that I should try to interact with her. However, with many fellow audience members also wanting to interact with any given performer, finding the right moment was less easy, and, in this case, I found myself feeling awkward the longer I stood watching others have their wrists braided. Being Strength, the initiative to interact was mostly hers, with audience members invited forward with a hand gesture, and, missing selection a couple of times, I quickly felt discouraged - last to be picked for the team yet again! La Force inverted?
This is what I feel may have been a challenging part of the show for some less forward people. For me, it was less about a reticence to engage with the performers, rather than a consciousness of so many others wishing to do the same, and thus an inevitable polite stiff-upper-lip resignation to letting others get on with it. I don't know, perhaps that's just me, as someone who is monotonously bad at getting served at bars, or ordering food in a restaurant without entering into a state of panic! But so it was that I found myself wandering further around the room, choosing not to engage with any of the performers but simply enjoying their performances from a safe distance.
I found a spot near a wall where I had a good view of all five performers in the first room. To be honest, perhaps too good a view at times - unsurprisingly, Carnesky's tarot went deep into the id, with a strong bias toward a psychosexual reading, and more than once, stood between Nina Felia's slow-motion contortions and Rowan Fae's Temperance, circling a tank of water in a gold bikini, I had to reflexively lower my camera as I found myself confronted by bums on all fronts. Which is not to say it was at all seedy, the erotic edge in no way detracted from the performances themselves, in fact fitting very naturally with the wholly surreal atmosphere (although my sister did apparently feel compelled to drag her boyfriend away from Death's semi-naked clay-pasted form!).
By now, having executed some impressively gymnastic poses above the mouth of the tank, Temperance was in the water, performing an inversion of her exploration of the tank exterior at the start of her piece. From the gloom, a man stepped forward slightly and suggested I go up to the tank and touch it. I hesitantly did so, feeling a bit daft and self-conscious. There was no response from inside the tank. "Sometimes she doesn't notice you," the man shrugged. Now, there is only so much stiffness anyone's upper lip can take, and following on from the Strength debacle, I now felt really determined to interact with a performer, and so, emboldened by the "sometimes", I decided to try again. Wandering around to the other side of the tank, I again put my hand to it, and this time Temperance responded, following my hand with her hand, and then her face, as she moved around inside the tank. It was quite an odd experience - I felt very self-conscious, and conscious of now being a part of the performance, and interacting with a strange lady in a bikini writhing in a tank. Despite being surrounded by watching people, and interacting with a player performing a predetermined role, it was nonetheless an inescapably intimate moment. I suppose it's a bit like being invited onstage by a magician and suddenly finding yourself not in the audience, but somewhere between the smoke and the mirrors. At essence, a human interaction, no matter how staged or theatrical, is still a human interaction, and in an odd atmosphere like the one at this show, that felt quite surreal and charged.
There were still many performers to see after that, and I got a fortune cookie note from The High Priestess (performed by Vicky Butterfly) that was freakily prescient to current life concerns, despite the fact that the theatrical intimacy got the better of me that time (somewhat to her righteous disdain) - it was a very solemn ritual but, alas, I can't have someone stare at me ominously from close range and still keep a straight face, as disrespectful to a High Priestess as that might be (sorry!).
There was much, much more, and I left the first part of the show feeling that I could easily see the show again a couple of times and have an entirely different experience. But there was only time left to quickly grab a rushed autograph from The Chariot, as superficial and fleeting a celebrity meeting as one could hope for, before the audience was called back to the central room.
Everyone returned to the ringside for an impressively choreographed(?) pitched battle between Strength and The Emperor, before entering a final room where the performers took to the stage on roller skates to deliver a gloriously incomprehensible rock operatic reading of the final cards, complete with full band (Rasp Thorn & The Briars) and theremin solos, and a visual and musical colour that suggested an imagined '60s hippy musical.
I had a massive grin on my face throughout the entire finale, but my sister and her partner apparently found its wide-eyed optimism a little too intense, and so it was that, once Carnesky had finally disappeared with a twinkle, arse-into-spotlight, and all the performers had emerged to take a bow, I found them already in the bar area nursing double rum and cokes. I thought it had been really interesting how the interactive elements of the show dissolved the traditional barriers between performers and audience, albeit in a theatrically-mediated way, and, perhaps partly inspired by this, I felt an urge to go and offer a brief personal thanks to the performers who were beginning to gather in the bar area. My companions, however, were keen to leave the dim (and slightly damp) subconscious world and head to the South Bank to throw themselves around on horrific-looking fairground rides, and so the opportunity swiftly passed.
Two hours later, I was still feeling nauseous after a three minute ride on the deceptively mini-looking mini rollercoaster, despite having had explicit foreknowledge that I would not enjoy it at all, and I was still thinking about the likely meaning of my "reading", and how this had perhaps already been forgotten by the time we reached the bar. Sometimes there are things that we simply never learn - but there's no harm in the occasional refresher lesson.
This was a multi-layered piece of experimental theatre which was of a high enough quality to be enjoyed at face-value, but also, like the tarot itself, rewarded interaction and a deeper personal consideration. This was my first time experiencing a piece like this, and it was a total joy; I will very much look forward to whatever comes next from Mrs. Carnesky and her acolytes. There are many better photos than the bad ones I took on the Carnesky Productions Facebook page, but should anyone read this and decide to go to the show this week (and you should if you can!), I'd suggest resisting the temptation to look and allowing yourself to be surprised.
Personally, I was a little surprised at the total lack of owls in the show, given that they featured heavily in the promo photos.. but on reflection, I'm happy enough for them to stay in the safety of the shadows.