Presented by Dank Parish
Unit 9, the Vault Festival
Part of Let’s Talk @ VAULT Festival
6 – 7 March
I don’t know why there’s something funny about the word “sturdy” – there just is. Combine it with the concept of divinity and even virginity, and you have a ready-made aesthetic for your interactive theatre show. This flavour of mock seriousness mixed with absurdity, religious satire, and just plain silliness typifies the Church of the Sturdy Virgin which is currently taking place at the Vault Festival as I type.
The piece started with an irreverent funeral procession along the grungy Leake Street, led by gothicky black-clad actors, the audience standing in for mourners. Upon entering Unit 9 – which with its high ceilings, shadowy spaces, and air that distinctly tastes of damp, really does feel like a ‘dank parish’ – we stepped into a wacky and slightly sinister hallowed ground. A winding path into the church proper took us past various nooks and rooms, half-hidden from view, populated by actors being weird and creepy in various ways. The best way to describe the aesthetic of the set design is that it reminded me strongly and favourably of the recent Sabrina reboot: mixed skulls and flowers, leather-bound books, old chalices, sinister-looking curiosities, tattered scrolls… there was even a graveyard section, complete with mounds of dirt, from which bones shone dirty white. I really have to hand it to the set designer, they really impressed me with their creative touches, sourcing of props, and commitment to detail. Despite being small-scale production with, no doubt, an even smaller budget, the set designer created a high-quality backdrop for the show’s action which perfectly supported and enhanced the experience.
Unfortunately, the contents of the play didn’t quite measure up to its set design. In fairness, I did go on a very early night in the run, and with interactive theatre the nature of the beast is that you can’t properly improve and perfect it until you have an audience, so no doubt it is running more smoothly and tightly now than when I saw it, but… there was definitely a fair bit of room for improvement.
Perhaps the biggest problem was that they had a clear structure for the beginning and ending of the piece (ie, introduction to the church and a funeral, respectively), but the momentum of the show got lost somewhere in the middle. We were rushed through the various scenes and activities in a way that felt both frenetic and time-stressed, but also like improvised filler material. Audience interaction was rife, but only ever in a limited or truncated fashion. Despite the fact that we were given secret missions in the past – for example, to discredit the recently deceased, or eke out some scandalous secrets from the disciples/actors – there was never really time or opportunity to act on these. At times there was a tinge of desperation to the actors’ performances, like they were in uncharted territory – which makes sense, if the show was still in the process of being reworked. This meant that often there was a lot of rambling improvisation. Unfortunately, genuinely interesting ruminations on society’s relationship with death, or satirisations of the same, were often lost amongst seas of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake.
Criticism aside, there were moments where the show really did work. Three stood out to me in particular, and each made me feel a different way:
- Mass sing-alongs of classic pop hits as ‘hymns’, the congregation clapping and singing, as the church’s disciples led the performance with perfect poker faces and expression of religious exultation. This sense of incongruity, absurdity, subversion, and hilarity was exactly what Dank Parish was trying to achieve throughout the show.
- A ritual to exorcise a room (and a woman) of a disturbing spiritual presence. For this rite, four of us (our “family”, which we were allocated at the beginning) needed to take a corner of the room each, in which a small stool displayed a number of items each representing a different “element”. We were told to conjure a memory of connection to our particular element, and to hold onto that as we chanted lines of power and used these elements to purify the space. I honestly did feel like I was connecting to magical forces in that moment! A genuinely mystic episode amongst all the absurdity.
- The opportunity to write some words of wisdom in the congregational tome. I chose the last words said to me by a loved one right before I died, which I genuinely do try to keep with me and live my life by. Writing them in the book, I saw others’ contributions – most of which were incredibly silly, hamburger hamburger hamburger ha for example – and this juxtaposition made me smile and reflect on the myriad ways that we, as humans, cope with the senselessness of our world.
Overall, I feel that Church of the Sturdy Virgin has the potential to be a really interesting piece of immersive theatre, with some workshopping, tweaking, and tightening of structure. The aesthetic design is already top-notch, the actors were clearly enthusiastic about the project, and some of the concepts were very effective. After a bit of work, this piece could truly become sturdy, and stay sturdy.
Previous review: A Hundred Words for Snow @ Trafalgar Studios