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Odette Toilette Aroma Ritual Night, 15 April 2015

21 April 2015

What lies concealed behind walls within walls? Peel back the unremarkable red brick façade of the Andaz Hotel in London’s Liverpool Street and you will find an elegant five-star residence with full modern leisure facilities for its guests. But there is more. This hotel has an unusual history.

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Opened in 1884 as the Great Eastern, it was one of the city’s original railway hotels. After enjoying early popularity its glory faded until, almost a century after opening, designer Terence Conrad set to work. During restoration, his workers knocked down a wall and revealed a curious wood-panelled antechamber.

Upon pulling back the antechamber’s heavy ornate doors they discovered one of the most grandiose masonic temples in London. Hand-carved mahogany chairs, bronze candelabras, marble columns, marble floor and walls, blue and gold domed ceiling… in short, a treasure.

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And if that wasn’t remarkable enough, it has now been discovered as a venue for the extraordinary aroma rituals of Odette Toilette – ‘purveyor of olfactory adventures’. Her sensual events are part lecture, part dramatic re-enactment, and offer exotic tastings and perfume-sampling to guests.

Re-enactment requires re-enactors, and that’s where I came in. A complex formative back-history intertwines Odette Toilette with Art Macabre, and this in turn has led to Art Macabre sourcing models for Odette Toilette. When they were short of one man, I was fortunate enough to get the call.

The cast assembled early to prepare for our 7pm start. Naïvely I imagined this was a new experience for all involved, but then slowly I realised in fact it was only me who hadn’t participated in a previous aroma ritual here. There would be six rituals in total this evening, of which I was to be the central figure in the first and third:

  1. HONEY MAN – Honey Jelly
  2. THE EGYPTIAN QUEEN – Flower-Infused Wine
  3. INCENSE AND SACRIFICE – Smoked Chocolate
  4. INTO THE UNDERWORLD – Pomegranate Sorbet
  5. ANCIENT GREEK MYSTERIES – Sweet Barley Arancini
  6. ANOINTING OIL – Orange Blossom Donut

My fellow performers were regular Art Macabre stars: Maya and Amy. In different circumstances we would be largely nude, save for body paint and wisps of costume. As this was a corporate event, however, Odette decided a modicum of modesty might be in order. Preparation centred on costume.

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Maya is a virtuoso genius when it comes to any form of make-up or costume-based transformation. Similarly Amy knew exactly what was required for her roles. I, on the other hand, got a 10-minute walk through my two rituals and was then prepared for the first by Nikki, Art Macabre’s very own visionary magician, a.k.a. Raven Rouge.

First my face was painted gold, then golden honeycomb patterns were added to my torso, which was finally overlaid completely by sparkly bronze. I was dressed with a gold bandana and sparkling loincloth that from a distance looked like Kylie Minogue’s hot pants. I was ready.

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The seats were full and Odette, in her magnificent red gown and wreathed hair, was already addressing her guests when Nikki led me to the temple doors. The sound of Odette’s gong was the signal for me to walk slowly, solemnly, yet willingly up to her sacrificial altar.

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As Odette explained the mummification of mellified men, her handmaidens fed me a dozen or so spoonfuls of honey. The first was huge and oozed down my chin, but the portions then got steadily smaller. Once filled, I was led around and laid flat upon the altar, where I was smeared with more honey and duly regarded as sacrificed.

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After motionless moments I was then permitted to be considered reanimated, and slowly made my exit from the temple. Well! That had been straightforward enough, and all rather enjoyable. While Maya and Amy continued with the Egyptian Queen ritual, Nikki prepared my next appearance.

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I was to be Mesoamerican, once more for the chop on the sacrificial altar. Different headgear, different loincloth, additional wristbands and some black lines for face paint. No honey this time, but I was garlanded, handed a flute – which I played tunelessly in a single lap of the temple – and laid out flat again.

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My eyes were closed. I could hear Odette talking about a knife, and then felt a thud on the centre of my chest. Mercifully nothing sharp; I believe I managed not to flinch. Once my “body parts” had been divided among the guests I was bidden to leave, and just made it out before my loincloth fell off completely.

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That was me done but I waited while Maya and Amy went Greek, and finally Amy was anointed in the guise of King Charles II. It had been a grand tour of the senses and the imagination, which Odette had woven skilfully and coherently into a clever, interesting and pacey evening of entertainment.

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Upon completion of the final ritual we were all invited to return and take an ovation. We seized the opportunity of our final costumed presence in the temple to snap some vanity photos. Our model professionalism fleetingly gave way to childish enjoyment of this extraordinary situation.

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From being drafted in relatively late, and having no full rehearsal before diving straight in, I had no real sense of how competent I’d been – if at all – but Odette was warm in her thanks and seemed genuinely pleased with the night as a whole. The guests left with big smiles, which is the main thing.

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As for me, I’d been bowled over by the entire event. The vision, the presentation, the attention to detail as waiters brought in tray after tray of fabulous delights, the setting and the theatre of it all; it struck me as utterly unique. It had been a genuine privilege to be involved.

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