Circus 1903 – Bord Gais Energy Theatre – Review
27 Nov 2019 – 1 Dec 2019
Find out more about Circus 1903 here.
By Diana Perez Garcia
“The year is 1903. People are not as litigious!” bellows Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) during the opening salvo of Circus 1903 as he flings a packet of popcorn in the direction of the outstretched arms of the eager children sitting in the front rows of the theatre. It is one of the many well-judged wisecracks he will deliver throughout the night. All of them served with a mixture of wryness and old-fashioned pizzazz. All of them striking a fine balance (this is an acrobatic circus, after all) to satisfy both the adults and the children in the audience. Throughout the show, he will mix the panache of the ringmaster with the tomfoolery of the clown and the skill of the magician. And it is fitting that the ringmaster should also act as magician because it is as if by some expert sleight of hand, the creators of the show had managed to bring the circus – a spectacle in the throes of extinction – to a Pixar-esque level of nostalgia and knowingness. By the end of the night, the whole audience will have fallen under its beautifully crafted and glittery spell.
I must admit that when I opened the email with the invitation to this show; my immediate reaction was to dismiss it. I had vague memories of famished lions being harassed by a topless tamer; of sad-looking besequinned acrobats past their prime; of the whitened and sinister faces of clowns contorting into grotesque laughter. OK, this last one may be taken from my recent outing to Joker, but thinking about those childhood circus nights, I realise how that old circus represented everything we have turned our backs on: blatant disregard for animal welfare and the exploitation of humans both wondrous and strange. Not to speak of men in questionable tights and bolero jacket combos. There was always a heavy air of sadness and precariousness hanging around the circus caravans when, as a child, I stepped out of the tent after the end of a circus night.
By contrast, the creators of Circus 1903 have devised a spectacle that mixes the classic acrobatic feats of traditional circus with a charming and very entertaining nod to its less palatable side. This is reflected in the lovingly crafted set design and evocative costume choices. The opening number of the night is a choreographed recreation of the hammering of the poles that anchor a circus tent. An ensemble of brawny men wearing plaid trousers and vests with braces or waistcoats, cravats and flat caps nicely conjures up the nomadic nature of circus life. Around them, dancers and acrobats create a dynamic background to the “catapulting chaos” of The Daring Desafios (João Siqueira, Luan Vieira and Leonardo Louzada), three Brazilian acrobats who catapult each other with second-splitting timing, managing to suspend themselves in thin air with Gene Kelly-like grace and vigour.
They are followed by feats of balancing and hand balancing, as well as aerial artistry, all impressive, but particularly so the balletic and delicate display by The Flying Fredonis (Daria Sheelest and Vadim Pankevych), a couple who make light of the tremendous strength and focus required for their performance. In the midst of them, emerging as the only bona fide act in a makeshift Victoriana freakshow, the audience is treated to the “serpentine sinuousness” of the company’s contortionist (Senayet Asefa Amare), a performer whose elastic movements I only thought possible in heavily CG-ied action films.
At times during the performance I quickly turned my head to observe the reactions of a very young boy sitting two seats away. At one point during the performance of Les Incredibles (Ivan Formichev and Maria Boldyreva), another couple of performers with brazen disregard for the laws of gravity and their own safety, he was peering through his fingers, not able to take his eyes away nor fully face what seemed to be hairs away from some impending catastrophe. He was not on his own. At another point, the piercing scream of an alarmed little girl rang through the theatre mid acrobatic somersault. She was screaming for all of us.
Captivating as the physical performances were, I was most taken with the beautiful elephant puppets, Queenie and Karanga, created by Significant Object, the team behind the puppetry of the stage adaptation of War Horse. Their bodies have been crafted with mesh to imitate the rough texture of elephant skin: they are formidable and delicate creations; phantom elephants whose routine on stage brings to mind Dumbo, another moving homage to bygone circus.
Through the night, Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade summoned eager volunteers to the stage, none of them older than ten. They were an array of startled boys and girls brought in to inject some humour in between the acrobatic acts. Here was the adult audience looking at a former – more credulous, less deferential – version of themselves. One of those boys, seven-year-old Josh, was charming in his diffidence throughout a very entertaining set piece involving three other children and a very resilient and lively pet raccoon belonging to the ringmaster. At his request, after the end of the set piece, Josh lingered on to pet baby elephant Karanga, refusing to touch its trunk at the very last minute, as if frozen in the awe of the moment. Intent on consoling him and sending him happy to his parents, the Ringmaster asked Josh did he know what the audience thought of him? A question he answered himself, “they think that you have made them very happy tonight.” He might as well have been speaking of himself and the talented troupe of performers in his company.