By Daniele Finzi Pasca
What constitutes a circus? When I was growing up it was always a combination of the Big Top, the circus ring, clowns, animals, jugglers, acrobats, music, showmanship, sawdust, smells and the noisy reactions of the crowd. There are still a few of these old-style entertainments about, but they seem to belong to another age. Cirque Eloise, like a number of other newly-formed circus troupes, is involved in attempting to preserve the best traditions of the circus’s past while moving into new areas more suited to the tastes of the twenty-first century.
Gone are the performing animals, and therefore the ring, the sawdust, and the smells. Gone too, in Rain , are the clowns. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of physical humour, slapstick and joking involved, since every member of the troupe is included in the often very funny group acts that punctuate the specialty performances. Whether being knocked out by an irate juggler, pushed off the top of a piano, catapulted into the wings, or ‘peed’ on by a prankster, these performers are called on to demonstrate high-level traditional clowning skills.
That other tradition of clowning – the sad individual behind the big smile – is very much in evidence too. There is a sweet melancholy running through this show, a nostalgia for a lost past that is evident in the costumes, the music and the choreography. The show opens with the Director, Daniele Finzi Pasca, speaking of memories of rain in his childhood, making sense of the backcloth of sky, the recurring clouds and the childlike fixation with water. Throughout his introduction Pasca’s English pronunciation is corrected from the wings, to his growing annoyance. This mixture of comic irritation and nostalgia colours the entire piece, which purports to take place in a theatre where a circus show is in rehearsal.
Set in an earlier age, this circus has performers who do not wear flashy outfits, lacquered hair or revealing leotards. Instead the women are in bloomers and long stockings or long dresses while the men wear shorts guaranteed not to over-excite any but the most desperate women in the audience. The music that accompanies the acts is not the brass-band bravura of old-time circus bands, however. Instead, largely performed by the acrobats themselves on piano, violin, saxophone and accordion, it is redolent of that sweet sadness that we often associate with French sensibility.
The combination of this music, skilful lighting, and imaginative choreography makes the act where five women dangerously twirl, dangle, and entwine themselves in columns of cloth, finally to hang like broken dolls, somehow inexpressibly sad. There is a solemn gravitas too about another outstanding act: the two-man strength and balancing act termed ‘hand to hand’ in circus parlance. Jacek Wyskup and Bartlomiej Pankau are breath-taking as they perform impossible feats in quiet slow motion, then disconcert us by occasionally gazing seriously out into the audience before continuing their act. There is absolutely no flashy showmanship in this circus, no demands for applause, no self-congratulation. All the artists seem to perform for themselves or for each other, so that we feel privileged to be included in their world.
So, with no Big Top, no circus ring, animals, sawdust, smells, brass bands, clowns, or gaudy showmanship, what is left that marks this show as a circus? Well, apart from the awe-inspiring skill of the troupe who are trapeze artists, jugglers, acrobats, strong men and women, musicians, dancers, and clowns, there is one absolutely vital ingredient that is present in abundance – and that is the ability to move an audience to a very vocal involvement with the show.
The “oohs” and “aahs” that greet spectacular feats, the loud and spontaneous applause, the gasps and sudden silences that accompany particularly daring moves are characteristic of circus audiences everywhere. But it is above all in the delighted laughter that continually erupts that one recognises the particular appeal of the circus. And, for all the nostalgic sweetness, there is a great deal of laughter in this show. This is epitomised in the final scenes, when the rain cascades down and the troupe celebrates its coming with an infectious joy that encapsulates all the playfulness of childhood. Sliding and cavorting round the flooded stage the performers release the child in all of us – and that is surely quintessential circus.
Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca
Playing 26-29 July 2006: Evenings 7:30pm, matinees Thursday 26th and Saturday 29th , 1:30 pm
Running time: two hours, including interval.