Kneehigh Theatre, Nights at the Circus

Review in Issue 18-2 | Summer 2006

Kneehigh is a company rediscovering the largely lost art of theatricality in British theatre, reminding us of what mainstream theatre could be like if companies took more risks and adjusted their focus from the message to the medium.

Nights at the Circus draws us in to a run-down circus on the cusp of the 19th-20th Centuries: a tired world yearning for something new to satisfy the longings and frustrations generated by the old. Eventually, the darkness and cruelty of the circus is shattered; out of its ashes emerges a world of honesty, beauty and freedom.

Many of Kneehigh’s hallmarks are evident here: ‘the anoraks’ (the clowns) in their cheap, absurd costumes; a living stage, animated by the performers’ bodies and voices; a sensitivity to the productive and qualitative differences between live and recorded sound; a courageous exploration of sexuality, identity, violence, life and death.

So far so good – but a production which establishes the audience as participants in the stage action in the 19th Century left me feeling strangely disconnected by the performance as a whole. The stage/audience relationship was often unclear were we the 19th Century audience? Modem spectators? Both? It was as if, having established our liminal, spectator/participant, identity, there hadn’t quite been time to think through the staging implications of this. The dynamic engagement established at the opening promised much, but for most of the first half I felt addressed by the stage, rather than engaged by it in a common theatrical endeavour.

This intriguing and, ultimately, moving production (whose ending surprised me with its power and beauty) picked up pace in the second half, with its more confident exploitation of the stage. However, if Nights at the Circus is ‘Angela Carter’s … homage to the theatre’, then Kneehigh’s production felt torn between establishing its own theatrical identity and paying homage to Angela Carter.

Presenting Artists
Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Feb 2006

This article in the magazine

Issue 18-2
p. 25