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‘We should be celebrating the greatness of circus in its enduring glories’: CIRCUS 1903 – Royal Festival Hall

In Cabaret, Circus, Features, Opinion, Regional theatre, Reviews, Touring by Katharine KavanaghLeave a Comment

Review from: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London; 20th December 2018

‘Circus 1903’ at the Southbank Centre IMAGE: Manuel Harlan

The inter-continental spectacle of Circus 1903 is a nostalgic dream of popular imagination, merging half-remembered histories with modern-day acts more usually seen inside a big top or dedicated circus building than in the theatres receiving this tour. Production values are high, and everything looks gorgeous – not least the famed elephant puppets, as realistically conjured as the hype promises. Narrator-cum-ringmaster-cum-magical-entertainer Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) keeps us topped up with hearty laughs and heart-tugging aww’s at the young volunteers he works with on stage, and holds the frame of the show together. The acts are all very high quality, and a couple stand out as excellent. I find myself gasping, wincing and squealing at the tension, or whooping at a particularly impressive move, along with a large portion of the audience around me.

So why don’t I love this show?!

I can see there is much to love, but my problem is that I know too much. Director Neil Dorward has created a commercially appealing spectacle based on broad stereotypes of circus past and, whilst circus may be one of the least significant victims of stereotyped assumption under current global politics, it suffers nonetheless. Unequal gender roles and Orientalist othering of ‘exotic’ foreign performers are no longer appropriate in a 21st Century show of this scale. Circus researchers also know, however, that this approach is not necessary for an accurate representation of the 1903 period either, and it feels lazy allowing the show to reinforce generalised suppositions in this manner.  What’s more, a careful consideration of contemporary political thought has clearly been given to the representation of animal performers within the show; why hasn’t the same consideration been given to women, performers of colour, and disabled people? (Quite how the producers thought it was ok to have a performer ‘crip up’ as a hunchback is beyond me).

The bygone-era feel to the show also seems to suggest that the kind of acts depicted – and their associated glamour, excitement and atmosphere – are a thing of the past, instead of drawing attention to the living circus industry that still exists in many vibrant forms today. Seems a shame, and rather misleading.

With that out the way, it’s time to lock my inner-Grinch back in the trunk and get to the acts themselves.

There is no overlaying story to the production; the narrative is simply that of arriving at the tober, raising the tent, and putting on a show, with a cosy accompanying metaphor popping up towards the end of the second half that life is a circus, so we should remember to appreciate its miracles and surprises every day.

Music is stirring and dramatic, drawing on a melting pot of cultural influences to reflect the multi-national backgrounds of circus communities. The recording was made by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, but the slick timing and manipulation of cues gives an illusion of live musicians responding to the acts as they play out.

IMAGE: Manuel Harlan

After Willy Whipsnade’s introductory patter and opening gift to a young member of the audience, Circus 1903 launches proceedings with a teeterboard act that sets the adrenaline high and gets the crowd warmed up very quickly. ‘The Flying Finns’ are Leonardo Louzada, João Siqueira and Vinicius Vasconcelos, who achieve great height for elegant double saltos and layouts while the bustling ensemble pause their choreographed scene-setting to provide focus and tension. Like most of the acts in the programme, the acrobats are credited in the show by a fictional name, presumably to allow for recasting as the long tour might require.

An exception to this rule is ‘The Sensational Sozonov’, portrayed by rola bola whizz Mikhail Sozonov (although the role has previously been performed by Geddy Pavlovich, proving the interchangeable case in point). Silver slop buckets give way to silver hourglass balance cylinders, which stack – curved edge to curved edge – on top of a tall table for Sozonov to stand – or handstand – on top of. We’re less than 20 minutes into the show, and the audience have already been clapping and cheering along for about 15 of them. When Sozonov balances his board on top of six independently moving cylinders, and then completes a slow 360° turn, I find my own hands are pressed to my gaping mouth, wide eyes glued to the precarious picture in front of me.

‘The Cycling Cyclone’ in a previous production of Circus 1903

A change in dynamic brings Serge Huercio centre stage for his ‘ballet with a bicycle’. Against the melodramatic seriousness of brass band accompaniment, he performs graceful comic moves which makes an excellent contrast. Transitioning from pedals to seat to handlebars, he circles the stage, one moment a rider of a rearing horse, the next a whirl of reverse pirouettes. I see very little trick cycling in UK circus at the moment, and this was one of my favourite acts in the show.

Following is the ‘Deadly Games’ knife throwing act of Alfredo Silva and Aleksandra Kiedrowicz, who add a little novelty to the routine by having Aleksandra at the board call out directions to Alfredo when he dons a black hood for a blindfold. I’m with a friend who had never seen a knife-throwing act before, and she’s on the edge of her seat throughout. Like everything in the show, it’s a very professionally delivered act, designed to deliver a stereotyped ‘snapshot of the past’ experience.

IMAGE: Manuel Harlan

I prefer routines that inject a little more individual flair and personality – which, of course, is a very different ballgame in a proscenium arch theatre compared to the more direct engagements of a big top ring. Threads of fairground bulbs, two king poles set at the sides of the stage rigged with wire walker platforms, a central wooden wagon and clusters of painted pedestals and platforms towards the outer edges of the stage create a recognisable world, but Todd Edward Ivins‘ effective design can’t bridge the gulf of human connection between the stage and the farthest rows of seats (and my heart goes out time and again to the children sitting near me who shoot their hands into the air at every mention of a volunteer, but never get a look-in because only children from the first section of the stalls are picked). Yes, this does emulate the distancing scale of the American three-ring shows at the turn of the 20th Century, but there’s a reason they died out while smaller, more intimate shows are still going strong…

A sideshow of humbugs is played for laughs, which is amusing enough, but is an awkward setting for Senayet Asefa Amare’s superb contortion act. She spiders her limbs around her torso, backbending and balancing on her hands in a dazzling array of dynamic postures, as wild, weird and wonderful as the sign proclaims. But is it appropriate to frame that around her Ethiopian identity, as if the two aspects of her life are necessarily entwined? What other ways could her impressive and highly trained skills have been presented without perpetuating colonial mythologies?

IMAGE: Manuel Harlan

‘Lucky Moon’ is the name given to the aerial hoop act billed as ‘the greatest aerialist of her generation’. In this version of the show, the role is played by Poland’s Got Talent winner Aleksandra Kiedrowicz. She is very polished, with a smooth flow of movement, nice lines, and a  toe-hang while swinging to finish off – but no spectacular style or dynamic that makes her especially memorable. Again, she plays the popular stereotype to perfection, but stereotypes are never the most interesting examples in their field.

IMAGE: Manuel Harlan

As the first half finale, the elephants arrive. Mama first, beautiful and majestically ponderous, an elegiac tune playing. Three internal puppeteers power her head, heart and hind – two of whom have to walk on stilts to achieve her life-size height. She’s joined by baby Peanut (Luke Chadwick-Jones), as playfully adorable as a real-life Dumbo could be, if not quite as lumberingly elephantine as the adult Queenie. The pair play out a natural scene in the backlot, rather than performing showtime tricks, and join in with everyone else to raise the striped canvas of the circus tent backdrop before the interval bursts us back into the theatre.

Part two begins with Les Incredibles (Olava Rocha Muniz and Marcella Collares) with a Korean/Russian Cradle act, which includes a lovely spin from balled-up flyer Collares round a vertical axis that I’ve not seen before. A clown alley training camp skit is a nice bit of interaction for a father and son team from the audience (although the least said about the supporting hunchback acting the better. No. Actually. It needs to be said. If you want your show to provide diverse representation, hire diverse cast members. A faked physical impairment should not be paraded out as a cheap gag like this).

Mikhail Sozonov returns with partner Ievgeniia Fetkulova for a ball spinning act, which is deceptively presented in this show as though she is a mere flexible prop for his showmanship. She has her own manipulation talents and applause is equally due to both members of the duo.

Eight star-spangled roller globes set a semi-circle on the stage, ringing a more intimate arena for ‘The Great Gaston’ (François Borie). He’s a strong club-juggler and, although we do see some solid four club patterning and a flash of seven – as well as a cycle of boomerang hats – Borie’s major skill is in his speed with three clubs, and his quicksilver finishing move revives the energy in the room.

Another section of consummate audience involvement with David Williamson has puppetry, magic, and plenty of humour, distracting me completely from the rigging change taking place behind. This is the finale set-up for the Los Lopez high wire act (the Fratelli Rossi Risley Act which is usually part of the show doesn’t appear in today’s programme). Up on the wire, the Lopez Family (Johan Lopez, Jonatan Lopez, and Maria Jose Pontigo) perform classic tricks of leap-frog, two-highs, and cycling, culminating in a pyramid where Pontigo performs hand-balances on the central bar, supported by the two brothers on bikes.

There isn’t a duff act to be seen, but with tickets up to £99.50 for the best seats, you might do better getting down to a real big top for a closer experience of the action. As the Circus250 year draws to a close, we should be celebrating the greatness of circus in its enduring glories, not perpetrating the dubious moral myths of another era.

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