We were deep within one of London’s magnificent seven cemeteries, it’s dusk, there’s clear skies and a full moon. It’s only the slightest bit creepy ahead of the Circa’s latest performance piece, aptly titled Depart.
On the night of our visit, the performance was sold out. The popular performance of Depart is a part of the LIFT festival, who have been pioneering new forms of theatre across the capital. We were promised a summer night full of surprises.
We arrived Cantrell Fields, a cleared section of Tower Hamlets cemetery just before 9pm. The summer solstice is approaching so despite the time, the sun was still in the sky. The inevitable fading light reminding us the dark would soon be upon us. Upon entry we were given coloured wrist bands, later used to split the audience into three groups. Some were split from the people they came with, as the colour of the wristband defined everyone’s fate. It was a silent performance, and one can wonder if being in a cemetery at night, surrounded by strangers, only enhances the spookiness of the show.
In the field, we were greeted by a large group dressed head to toe in black. Blank expressions, dead eyes, singing in rounds, some carrying dimly lit lanterns. Once the groups were established, the black cloaked singers disappeared into the woodlands.
Our group comprised of about 100 people, a surprisingly large group for the path that lay ahead. Under the canopy of the large dense greenery, we shuffled along the path. It was uneven, wet and muddy underfoot. Through the shrubbery I spotted our first performer. Hanging from a tree by just a rope. Pale and dressed in white she resembled a possessed spirit with an affinity for flight. Spinning and twirling at a distance, despite my height I couldn’t get a good enough spot to see before being prodded to keep moving by my cloaked handler carrying a hurricane lantern from a stick.
The narrow path wound around headstones and low lying branches so the arrival at each performance was a surprise. There was a clever use of lighting with additional moving pictures projected onto centuries old headstones that added an element of the unexpected. For the most part we shuffled along silently, some gasps and snickers come from the group as a plant brushed along an arm like a cold dead hand, a stumble on the muddy terrain or a scream echoed through the trees.
The premise of the show was good. A silent immersive theatrical promenade with aerial acrobatics using free ropes, hoops, trapeze and a cyr wheel was a concept I’d not seen before. The muted ushers and performers, highlighted the only sound resonating through the dense grove is that of the ethereal choir cloaked in black veils. We arrived at an open clearing, they begun to sing their haunting hymn. Goosebumps ran up my arm, it was as though we’d stumbled on a state of perdition.
The stillness of the surroundings played a huge part in the mesmeric development of the production. As your eyes adjusted to the darkness, your senses became heightened. The choral voices reverberated through the still grove which provided a celestial ghostly presence throughout the performance. While you couldn’t always see them in their long black funeral cloth, they could be heard through the trees.
The performers deserved more attention from the promenade. The inability to absorb myself in each performance and give adequate timely respect to the act was evident from the start. The group tended to stop prematurely along the path, room to see each act was easily limited to the first 40 whom arrived. The rest of us were left to listen or glance as we shuffled past.
By the time I could actually see the performer, I was herded along by a cicerone wielding a lantern, rotated it in a circular direction to encourage movement and speed. A silent ‘hurry up’ if you will. Determined, I secured a viewing spot at the next act, standing on a platform was Chris Thomas with his Cyr wheel. Little did I realise at the time, this would be the most I would see a performance throughout the entire evening. Two minutes of silent observation, as Chris finished his haunting set, we all started to again slip away.
The finale is in yet another clearing. The long grass had been trampled flat by the audience. An elevated boardwalk was the stage for performers to come together to showcase their flexibility, strength and faith in the ability of one another. The choreography was steady but the message disordered. The distinct absence of a storyline made the finale feel more like an opportunity for the performers to showcase their talents than at any other stage through the promenade.
Overall it was an ethereal experience that had potential. The talent and stamina of Circa members we’d seen before, combined with the costume and environmental aspects contribute to a mostly solid performance. There was significantly more walking involved than I’d anticipated, the low-light and narrow slippery footpath will prove too hazardous for some.
Credit to all the performers, their incredible feats of strength and flexibility displayed can only be met with an open mouth and an enthusiastic clap. They’re all clearly talented and deserve more face time than they received in the promenade.
The entire production was let down by the execution and sheer number of attendees. Improvements through smaller groups, more time at each performance and a shorter route could contribute to a greater overall production.
When: 16-26 June 2016
Where: Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, E3 4PX
Nearest Tube: Mile End
Tickets: Standby tickets are available, however to guarantee entry book online.