Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid : Review of Velvet Loop’s The Illumination

This week took me to the depths of Hackney for an Immersive Theatre adventure which presented itself as an open evening of workshops, learning and free thought hosted by “The Scholars of the Last Torch” – a group of similar thinking individuals who seek a collective freedom.

It’s basically a cult.

The event takes place in the exceptionally bizarre Lumiere bar – a place so decorated and rammed with random bits and pieces that it is actually impossible to tell what Velvet Loop brought with them for the production and what was already super-glued to the walls. It’s the perfect location for a commune to base themselves, and they do ‘cult’ scarily well in this place. All the actors are clothed in loose white clothing and move with a superior calmness. Smiles seem genuine, and they are convincing and enthusiastic about the joy they’ve found in this commune – but troubles lie beneath the smiles, and it doesn’t take long in the evening for the cracks to surface, and for problems in the group dynamic to begin to rise to the surface.

There is some clear influence here from the style of Immersive Theatre masters Punchdrunk, and it works very well for this production. On arrival, everyone is given a personal tour of the warren of rooms available to the performance. Over the course of the evening, you are encouraged to move freely around the space and choose which actors to interact with and to follow. You can watch a scene, and then move away as soon as something else catches your attention. It’s well worth eavesdropping, particularly outside the ‘not-so-nice’ bathroom’s door – even if eavesdropping is outlawed in the commune.

Katie Gorczynski

It gets off to a slightly slow start, but the actors are brilliant at keeping everyone entertained and moving around the – somewhat absurd – space. They think wonderfully on their feet, and are good at answering any questions you fire at them—they will not be caught out. Ask them questions, and feel free to challenge their beliefs; they will rise to the challenge with an eerily calm smile and a well-prepared answer. There’s even a website devoted to their practice, which is good attention to detail.

The idea of good vs evil is present in this production, but it is not so simple as identifying people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or even identifying the cult itself as ‘good’ or ‘bad’—and there is no clear shift between right and wrong. There is more grey area in understanding people’s motives than there is in the ‘fog’ the audience are told they are currently in. The ending presented is not cut and dry, as suspicion and accusation change focus from character to character in the climactic scene, and the group adopt a pack mentality as they shift blame and rage from one person to other – who comes out on top isn’t clear when you’re being ushered out.

The narrative leaves something to be desired, and while the production does well to link several story arcs, the one involving ‘Pearlie’ – which, to me, was the  one sparking the deepest emotional connection – appeared to be left unresolved, which was disappointing.

The most enjoyable part of the evening comes with participating in the rituals and workshops offered by the cult. The basement shares some shocking similarities with my preferred yoga studio – in particular the candles and music – and when the group members start slowly dancing and humming and encourage the audience to participate I become concerned as to whether I’m in a mock-cult situation, or just at my regular yoga class. It’s a fine line, but either way I close my eyes, hum along, and find myself genuinely having a good time.

This is fun theatre, but it doesn’t delve deeply enough into the issues created by a cult mentality to be as haunting and eerie as it has the potential to be. You can go see it until 3rd April 2014 and buy tickets here, but word of warning – the bar is excellent and extremely reasonably priced, but whatever you do – don’t drink the kool-aid!

***

Harald Veland

The writer was given free tickets to review this production.

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