I was recently invited along to the debut of Fringe piece Chants des Catacombes, and I can’t remember the last time I was so entranced and absorbed by a performance…
You step through the Old Adelaide Gaol’s heavyset doorway into a different world; a different time. A stretch of tealight candles guides your path between looming stone walls, as stars twinkle serenly in the clear sky above. Someone offers you a glass of chilled sangria from the prison of a barred window. Continuing on, you round a corner onto an expansive grassy yard, dotted haphazardly with wooden chairs, more candles and serenaded by the lilting tones of a young lad on the piano. Will the night begin with a rousing game of Musical Chairs? Alas, no; as the rest of the crowd slowly drifts into the space, sipping their sangria and shuffling impatiently with anticipation and excitement, your gracious host Bryce introduces himself and explains the rules of the evening, then leads you on your merry way across the courtyard, through another doorway and into the darkness of the Catacombes.
For the next hour your journey is what you make of it. In the concrete catacombes of the gaol, you can come dangerously close to the prison sirens as they whirl and wail in the shadowy light, or you can stand safely back behind the braver, more curious travellers.
First, you meet the Courtesan: despondent and disdainful in equal measures in that way the French do so well, and from what you can gather, murdered with a meat cleaver by a gentleman suitor. Next up are the General and the Showgirl, performing a tango so full of passion and vitriol that you forget they are two talented young women playing pretend. In a neighbouring room you are introduced to the Surgeon, who breaks your heart with her wrenching rendition of Laura Marling’s ‘Ghosts’.
As the journey continues, you find yourself more and more lost in the sad tales of these three women; to the point where you no longer have to be gently guided from one scene to the next, but drift naturally from one chapter to the next. You gasp as the General’s jealousy overwhelms him, and the General’s gun overwhelms the life of the Showgirl; and smile entranced at the three ghosts’ rendering of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The performance inhabits the space so confidently and completely that you forget you’re watching a show. Instead, as books slam violently overhead and confetti flakes drift serenly from above like snow, you feel as though you’re witnessing the tales of the gaol itself play out before your very eyes. Everything feels charged, emotional, and real.
But it is not, and all too soon the ghosts retreat back into the shadows, leaving you to the end of your journey: a cobbled courtyard where The Twoks bash out spirited tunes with their combination of electric violin, drums and mesmerising vocals; their shadows dancing like giants on the cobblestoned walls of the gaol. As they play the best version of Gorillaz’s ’19-2000′ you’ve ever heard, you raise your beer in a toast: to the ghosts of the Catacombes. May they continue to haunt and enchant the lives of theatregoers for years to come.