Sodden theatregoers decorate Leake Street. The asphalt is damp with footsteps, and the evening chill, oppressive. Graffiti clamours all around, a skull leering at passers-by. Its jaw stretches, a series of words bored into the wall beneath: “Flick Brexit”. This wisecracker looks on as a funeral procession begins – it is an analogous kind of exodus. A wooden coffin is hoisted onto the shoulders of the party, our course led by a young woman in mourning dress. “Keep pace” hisses a mouth buried somewhere under a top hat, “Left, Right, Left, Right”.
Our demure gait stammers at the entrance of The Church of The Sturdy Virgin, where we are welcomed over the threshold and into the shadows. Dank Parrish have done well to stimulate the senses. There is a distinct smell of paint, along with the heaviness of recently-disturbed earth. A lone figure drags the head of a shovel across the stone floor, its screams leaping across the spines of decaying trees, flickering candles, and the fog of incense. The space has been carefully choreographed so as to encourage a spirit of theatre. It is a warren, a seemingly endless series of chambers cramped by hushed whispers and mysterious objects.
Participants become divided by their pews. Strangers are now families, wrapped up in talismans that decide one’s order of service. Our journey centres around the recently deceased – two of our number chosen at random. The action is shared across two halves, with groups swapping narratives mid-way. Some will be sent to the mortuary, the burial chamber, or remain seated for a consultation with the Funeral Director. We are encouraged to grieve, to reflect on the legacy of the dearly departed, and to withstand the tide of familiar dysfunction as often as possible. Ironically, the evening is full of life. The cast bubble with a strange energy, their oddities spilling over, contagious. Soon, laughter sounds alongside the pealing of bells. It is a signal for the group to move on, for fiction to remain in constant flow.
At times, this shepherding from place to place turns sour. There is a lot to see to, and the church’s checklist comes with a haste in which to complete it. This is a shame, as it means that the finer details of this well-crafted production are forgotten amongst all the activity. I feel myself wanting to break away; to inspect a shrine more closely, to delve into the dirt that slumbers at the edges of the story, to meditate in a room caught between this world and the next. Still, the game is fun, the sermons are magnetic, and a joint communion à la Kylie Minogue is glorious. The Church of The Sturdy Virgin tries its best to challenge the way in which death is represented in the modern age – it may not have fully succeeded, but if you are willing to play, this immersive event will prove most rewarding.
The Church of The Sturdy Virgin is playing at the VAULT Festival until 17 March. For more information and tickets, see the VAULT Festival website.