Ever since the moment they emerged from the thigh of Zeus some centuries ago, Dionysus has been making headlines. Worshipped by ancient cults across the Greek world, they led bands of women in ecstatic ritual, destroying those who opposed their core belief that we should all go hard or go home.
Despite conflicting stories around how the god came into being, most acknowledge that Bacchus was in fact born twice. Thanks to complications at the birth they were later resurrected, coming to be defined as a ‘dying and rising’ God.
By that logic they’re probably still around today. And if they are then there’s every chance you’ll find them in a converted railway arch hosting an immersive theatre and dining experience.
Shotgun Carousel is the production company behind this latest transformation of the snaking vaults beneath Waterloo station. Divine Proportionsis a five course, cocktails, cabaret, and hot candle wax kind of a show, geared towards anyone considering formalising their own debauchery as religious devotion.
Once the audience has indulged in a libation or two, and partaken of an appetiser, the Maenads summon their God to appear before us, and Dionysus materialises on the bar.
The most interesting thing about Dionysus is of course their gender. Dionysus is the only Greek deity that we might describe today as genderqueer. Centuries ago their refusal to conform to traditional gender roles was a major part of the threat they posed to society. And in the course of this show, they propose that we too should liberate ourselves from the constraints of the binary, encouraging us to “wear our labels a little lighter.”
The cast rotates throughout the season but Helen White’s interpretation of the part-time-cult-leader-full-time-godhead is charming, spunky, and quick-witted, clutching a microphone on a stick like a divine Freddie Mercury. Helen’s also got a fabulous voice, and an infectious streak of mischief draws laughter, surprise, and even sighs of deep satisfaction from the assembled congregation.
Helen is a drag king who on other occasions performs as Len Blanco – a former boyband sensation from south Wales, who is much less eager to celebrate his profligate youth, as he strives to get his stalling career back on track.
The show is directed by Celine Lowenthal, a founding member of the drag king collective Pecs, which also specialises in binary-bending burlesque, and vaudevillian drag variety.
Resistance to the idea of gender binarism is something that clearly runs deep with the creative team, and successfully manages to be part of the fabric of the evening without being heavy-handed. The show is predominantly a lot of fun, its funny and warm and inclusive. But through the prism of an ancient genderqueer deity, through this icon of androgyny, the invitation is extended to step outside the restrictive confines of gender, and leave it behind.
As if that wasn’t enough, the food’s really nice too – ceviche, guinea fowl, and caramelised white chocolate for desert. Delicious. Courses are punctuated by the arrival of Aphrodite, and then Persephone in full BDSM mode. The latter bewitching Dionysus by applying hot candle wax directly to her own skin, and then seducing everyone else in the room with a dance of fire.
The Maenads are also working incredibly hard, approaching audience members individually, performing as a triad, and basically stage-managing the other sequences.
It made everyone a bit sad when they had to reiterate during their prologue, that the audience can look but not touch. We’d already been informed of this by the host at the door, but clearly its still an issue.
Some of my favourite moments of immersive theatre are when someone interrupts a performer in full flow to ask where the toilets are. Which happens a lot. It happened at our table whilst a Maenad was introducing us to a handheld version of Eros.
But because the script is already full of bathos it wasn’t a problem. The punchlines that follow lofty sentiment are often base, earthy, and raw. The text frequently lashing the sublime cheek by jowl with the daily mechanics of mortal existence.
Divine Proportions is on at The Vaults, London until 12th January 2019. More info here.