On a late summer night, The Old Vic Tunnels invited Londoners to enter their lair to explore a collision of culture as they melded art, circus, theatre, music and poetry into two nights of encounters in the shadows and performances in the arches. The unique collaboration made possible by the vision of the in-house team and its dedicated volunteers and interns, dubbed Dark Carnival: Notes from Undergound, enabled the audience to decide what they wanted to see and how involved they wanted to get, with a an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement throughout. Mike Barnard and his intrepid explorers took the step into the carnival.
Entering the tunnels down a wooden walkway, Orlando Seale and The Swell performed a welcoming song to ease into the archways promising so much to discover. First we ran into a space of cafe tables offering menus of poety and private readings — a space we would return to later. Overhead hung one of Bram Thomas Arnold’s “In Remembrance of Part Performances”, a series of textual fragments hung up as banners that help lead us through the space. A turn to the right and past a man playing guitar while walking in what looked to be a water wheel, we found ourselves confronted by an astute performance of shadow theatre by Hit Gelamp. Their adaptation of their enchanting “Madeleine on Tiptoe” show featured the angel of Paris, Madeleine le Bouc, who walked the city’s street on tiptoe at the end of the 19th century. We turned to move to the back of the second tunnel to find more cafe tables with string overhead. Dangling from the string were luggage tags with details of all that people had misplaced. This was a continuation of “The Tree of Lost Things” by Ignore the Forecast, a collective of four artists. People were queuing up to reveal what they had lost so while we pondered on what we needed returned, we moved back into the first tunnel to catch a short film but our attention was caught by a spotlight shining on a forlorn figure with blood on his face. As he backed down the tunnel, three girls followed him and behind them was a stream of inquisitive souls eager to see where they were going. When the procession stopped, a dramatic performance erupted before our eyes. It was soon time for the first of the main seated performances in the middle tunnel which proved to be a highlight of the evening. Orlando Seale led the audience into the auditorium and his band joined him to provide backing to a enthralling aerial circus as The Flying Felines wrapped themselves up in all kinds of shapes on the corde lisse in a power struggle between a puppet and puppet master. The live music and circus skills combined effortlessly, the rope-play particularly perplexing when the duo tied themselves up in knots together.
A dramatic performance erupted before our eyes
After the display in the main performance space, we took time out to relax in the cafe area where we were set upon by Bernadette Byrne and Victor Victoria of the East End Caberet. They offered to perform a song for us and quickly name launched into a lyrical joy telling us of how she once visited Thailand and was inspired by a ping pong show. Filled with asides from Victor and knowing winks from both, this private performance became increasing public as others crowded round our table to hear the pair. When they finished they vanished into the shadows so we set about constructing poems form the torn fragments of works left on our table and added to the luggage tags hanging overhead to provide our contribution to the evening’s entertainment. Behind us Claudio Santana had nearly blocked a tunnel with a fascinated audience several people deep, so we took to investigating the art and found the otherworldly “Hoofed Object of Lyndsey Searle – a spooky inhabitant of The Old Vic Tunnels looking like the ghost of a hundred socks sewn together with eerie menace. We also stumbled upon the verses of Andreas Grant who took us to one side and offered us a menu offering food for the soul in the form of “Speed Poetry” themes. We opted for a 18+ for a spicy starter, then a thriller to sink out minds into for the main course rounded off with sweet romance for dessert. Grant referred to his files for the first two, expertly delivering his reading with confidence, then conjured up the final piece from the recesses of his mind for a heart-warming romantic finale. To cap off the Dark Carnival, we moved to the cinema for short movies including the comic “Syncing” with Peter Capaldi playing a bewildered office worker confused by his ears transforming all they hear into nonsensical sounds and “Connect” featuring Steve Furst. After we were ushered towards the bar by the East End Cabaret to reflect on all that we had seen at a special after-hours party in the tunnels.
The dilution of art forms generated a richer taste for them all
After Dark Carnival on the Saturday, The Old Vic Tunnels opened its doors to the public for Red Night Light, a themed party inspired by the red light district of Amsterdam and Bohemianism. Tables lined the candle-lit tunnels for close encounters while two spaces were opened up where performers drew guests in. One saw a tightrope walker disrobe while balancing to encourage his partner to do the same while dancers accompanied the music spread over two rooms. The atmosphere was full of creativity and made a spirit conclusion to the “Dark Carnival” that could well stand up as a regular night time experience. Time will tell if The Old Vic Tunnels will become an after-dark cultural hot spot. For The Old Vic Tunnel, it’s “Dark Carnival: Notes from Underground” must be considered a huge success, proving a dilution of art forms generates a richer taste for them all. Should it return, it will surely find more for us to marvel.