Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.

Nuggets – Edinburgh Festival & Fringe Round-Up 2023

Curated programmes, trusted venues, familiar artists and producers – Dorothy Max Prior plays it safe at the Edinburgh Festivals 2023

Edinburgh, August 2023. I’m standing in a queue (inevitably) waiting to go into the Main Hall at Summerhall to see a sold-out show – Laura Murphy’s Making a Spectacle of Herself.  ‘It feels like we’re back to normal’ says Amy, the venues’s press officer, who is standing in the queue in front of me, ‘last year felt like a rehearsal…’ And yes, I concur – 2020 was cancelled, 2021 was a very minimal affair with hardly any shows, 2022 saw the Fringe relaunch, and 2023 feels like we’re back with a bang. Kind of.

With around 3,500 shows in the 2023 programme, the Fringe is down on its 4,000 shows plus pre-Covid record. And there have recently been calls from many quarters for the whole thing to be overhauled – with extortionate costs for accommodation and venue hire, the Fringe is just not viable for unsupported artists. Ticket prices have risen, and audiences are cautious. Artists are also wary: the old days of rocking up and taking a chance, hoping that yours will be the show that does it all –  grabs the attention of the press, builds a word-of-mouth success story, fills houses, and gets the awards – is more-or-less gone. Unless you have support of some support, it’s just not feasible. At the very least, you need to have previously made and toured the show to decent venues or festivals, and hopefully garnered a few favourable reviews or accolades. 

I will confess that, with no resources or financial support for Total Theatre Magazine, I’m here for a mere four days, and I am taking a cautious stance, only seeing shows that I want to see – shows that are part of a curated programme, at a venue I trust, and/or are by artists whose work I know. Maybe that’s a shame – but it’s how things are.

It was different when Total Theatre Magazine was a properly funded venture. I came to Edinburgh for the full month, my rent paid for (and even, a couple of decades back when we were an Arts Council Revenue Funded Organisation, on full pay with bonuses and expenses – those were the days!). Wearing both my magazine editor’s hat and my Total Theatre Awards judge’s wig, I saw scores of shows. I went through the Fringe print brochure (nicknamed the Edinburgh telephone directory), highlighting anything vaguely appropriate to TT. I saw shows I wanted to review, but I took a lot of chances, heading off to see shows that had a good title, or a nice photo in the brochure. I also went to see shows that had submitted themselves for consideration for a Total Theatre Award, and went to shows that the Awards producers asked me to see because assessors had differing opinions, plus making it a priority to see the whole Longlist before the TT Awards judging process began.

No more. I don’t know what will become of the Awards, but they are not happening for now – and perhaps their moment is gone. After all, we set them up to provide an alternative to the Scotsman Fringe Firsts, who wouldn’t consider the sort of mostly word-free physical and visual work we supported. But then Fringe Firsts, and Herald Angels, started going to the very same shows we awarded. And it all started to feel a little – odd. The one Total Theatre Award I do feel is unique and needs to be preserved if at all possible is the circus award, supported over many years by Jacksons Lane. This year’s offerings showed us that circus really has grown as an artform over recent decades – and I saw a fair few shows in my four-day whirlwind visit. (See the circus round-up here.)

Wunderbaum / Marleen Scholten: La Codista / The Queuer

So, in my state of caution, it was good to see specific curated programmes like Big in Belgium, Start to Finnish, and Made in Scotland have survived and thrived. Inclusion in one of these programmes is some sort of guarantee of quality. So it is, with no apology, that  I report back on shows that I’ve seen as part of these various curated programmes. 

I’ve previously written about two of the Big in Belgium shows – Funeral by Ontroerend Goed, and The Van Paemel Family by SKaGen, here – but also part of that programme was La Codista / The Queuer, by Wunderbaum – presented, like the rest of the programme, at Zoo Southside. La Codista is a one-woman show written and performed by Marleen Scholten which uses research into the bizarre profession of being a queuer for other people – getting their prescriptions, tax office documents etc. – the resulting research generating the text of the work. It’s a good enough show, a good script, well performed, with simple but effective staging – but in the ferment that is the Edinburgh Fringe it doesn’t quite have the extra spark needed to push it forward into the glittering frontline, and perhaps suffers a little for being seen inbetween those other two totally brilliant Big in Belgium shows Funeral and The Van Paemel Family . (There is a fourth show called Sneakpeek Shadow Game, an online ‘real time digital documentary’ by SKaGen which I didn’t get to experience.)

Agit-Cirk: Insomniac’s Fable

The four-strong From Start to Finnish programme included a show I’ve previously seen at Reykjavik Fringe (and can highly recommend), Them by Spindthrift Theatre. There’s also a show I would have loved to have seen but just couldn’t fit in, Chevalier Hobbyhorse Circus by the brilliant Race Horse Company, nominated for a Total Theatre Award in 2019 for Super Sunday; and two shows I knew nothing about. 

So I took a chance on one of those – Insomniac’s Fable by Agit-Cirk, a ‘delicate story with a Hitchcockian glint in its eye’, merging juggling and ballet. Of course, Gandini Juggling has set a high benchmark for work exploring the juggling-dance dynamic, but Insomniac’s Fable is its own thing, and was worth the gamble. 

The start is a little shaky – in the first scene, to the tune of ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, boy meets girl, and he juggles whilst she dances, but the interaction is token. As we move deeper into the dreamscape, with the addition of some interesting lighting states, some good shadowplay and use of scale, and some rather lovely projections of folkloric lino-cut images (sleeping wolf, tangled trees, a lighthouse on a cliff, a girl gazing over the sea into the horizon), the piece gets stronger. And the dance and juggling become more integrated. In one scene, the girl is manipulated by red ribbons tied to her limbs, so she becomes a marionette. In another scene, the girl dances to a raunchy blues number, using the boy’s juggling hoops as if they were feathery burlesque fans, then finds herself trapped in hoop ‘leg irons’. The metaphors are clear – he longs to own and command, she constantly pushes away and flies off. A little old-fashioned on the sexual politics, then – but Insomniac’s Fable is promoted as a surrealist exploration of dream and fantasy, so maybe that’s OK! An enjoyable hour of physical and visual storytelling.

Tortoise in a Nutshell: Concerned Others

Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Concerned Others is presented as part of Made in Scotland – another curated programme within the Fringe. It is an intimate tabletop performance that takes as its starting point the harrowing fact that Scotland has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe. It uses verbatim texts by doctors, patients and family members gathered up in their research process. These recorded texts are paired with a raft of visual theatre devices: the company’s trademark  miniature worlds manipulated by the lone performer (company co-founder Alex Bird), puppetry and mask work, and object animation with live-feed video of some every lovely shoebox installations. It’s another show that starts a little weakly, with the miniature world of tiny figures feeling a little bit superfluous to the verbatim texts which are (and perhaps there’s no avoiding this) commanding the space, and are all pretty dour and depressing. But later, it goes deeper in, and the visual theatre takes the upper hand – I love the little shoebox rooms in particular. There’s one that gives us the perfect dolls house sitting room: velvet couch, standard lamp et al. ‘Did you expect peeling wallpaper and damp?’ says the recorded female voice, talking of her teenage child’s addiction, and the surprised response of the social worker who saw that she came from what might be called a ‘nice’ home. There is, inevitably, the question of who this sort of issue-based theatre work is for. I doubt if the educated art-loving audience here at Summerhall learnt anything that they didn’t know about drug addiction. I personally didn’t – although I was pleased on two counts: that alcohol was included as a killer addiction (with a nice video montage of TV beer ads); and that the piece ended on a note of hope. People do escape this hell…

Cora Bissett: What Girls Are Made Of

Also part of Made in Scotland comes What Girls Are Made Of , the smash-hit, gig-theatre show that charts the true story of Cora Bissett’s ‘rollercoaster journey from 90s indie-kid to wised-up woman’. It’s not a new show – it won a Herald Angel and a Fringe First in 2018 – but I hadn’t seen it before, and people keep telling me I should – me a being a post-punk drummer in the 1970s and 1980s and all that.  

Here’s the blurb: ‘It’s 1992. In a small town in Fife, a girl is busting out of her skin to get out into the world and see what’s on offer. And an ad in the local paper declares: Band Seeks Singer…’ Thus, a schoolgirl from Glenrothes is catapulted to a rock-star lifestyle as the singer in a hot new indie band called Darlingheart. ‘Touring with Radiohead, partying with Blur, she was living the dream. Until she wasn’t…’

It is written and performed by Cora Bissett (who won a Total Theatre Award for Roadkill), the text based on her own teenage diaries, and the show framed nicely by the story of clearing out the family home and finding the diaries in a box in the loft, wedged in between the wedding photos and significant birthday cards. It is performed with a punchy upbeat energy, even through the difficult scenes, deftly directed by Orla O’Loughlin, and features a live band (with a female drummer – oh yes!) who also multi-task as various characters in the story.

And yes, it’s an enjoyable ninety minutes, and I’m glad I’ve finally seen it – but I did find it hard to relate to. It seems that all the work we did with punk in the 1970s – which saw a real revolution, women joining and fronting bands left right and centre – had somehow, by the 1990s, gone back to the pre-punk crappy world of female musicians in general, and lead singers in particular, preyed upon and exploited by managers, A&R men, journalists, and record company executives. Good God, what is all this nonsense? It’s heartbreaking.

But I liked the homage to Patti Smith (‘I didn’t know if I was in love with her or wanted to be her’ says Cora) and the Horses motif that runs through the show, Cora casting herself as a sturdy Shetland pony. I enjoyed the stories about her large-handed, nurturing dad and the mum who had herself nursed dreams of being a singer. I like the schooldays stories – with characters like hard-nut Caitlin, and the girl that nobody speaks to because she smells, drawn well as little cameos. The story doesn’t end with the band – there’s Cora’s time as a folksy alternative singer, a spell at drama school, making theatre, meeting her soul mate, and having a baby all coming into the tale – but unlike the evocations of her childhood and adolescence, this all feels truncated, squeezed into the narrative to wrap things up nicely and give the show a feel-good upbeat ending. I’d have found it stronger if it had stayed with the childhood and coming-of-age story.

Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillip: Lost Soles

Also autobiographical, in part anyway, the Aurora Nova produced Night Soles sees theatre director and designer Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips with a story about a Wyoming tap dancer who is stranded in Cuba. Using an interesting combination of tap dancing, shadowplay, and object theatre we meet the performer’s own tap teachers, including a grandmother who was Donald O’Connor’s teacher, and later danced with him on the vaudeville circuit. This moves us into a tap dance on a table that references O’Connor’s legendary table-top duet with Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. The table is used later in a scene where Phillips (revisiting working as a waiter) taps his way along a line of percussive plates. Elsewhere, a locker decorated with old cabaret and movie-star photos and flyers (including one for cat boxing, a reference that goes over my head!) turns into a pool table. Vintage tunes are played on a tinny dansette record player; and a shadow theatre scene plays out behind clothes pegged on a washing line. It’s a show full of vivid pictures in endearing scenes, driven by the scenography (as befits a performer who is also a designer), with a strong physical performance from this lone actor-dancer who seems equally at home dancing, reminiscing and slipping into the skin of other characters (his Cuban accent sound pretty authentic to me!). But somehow it all feels a little less than the sum of its parts…  I think because previous Thaddeus Phillips productions seen at Ed Fringe  – 17 Border Crossings and Inflatable Space – were so very good, so beautifully constructed with such strong dramaturgy, that expectations were high. These two were great shows – and Night Soles is merely a good show. It’s a tough environment in Edinburgh, particularly when you are in competition with your own past successes!

Geoff Sobelle: Food

Also a one-man show, and also using tables and objects to tell stories, comes Geoff Sobelle with Food – the only Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) show I catch on this trip. Geoff is also part of the Aurora Nova stable – and indeed a Fringe veteran. I first saw him many years ago in the days when Aurora Nova had their own venue at St Stephen’s Church, where he was performing as one half of Rainpan 43 in the utterly brilliant All Wear Bowlers which honours both vaudeville and silent movies. He then went on to collaborate with Charlotte Ford in the Total Theatre Award winning Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl – an almost word-free play in which the human world gets hijacked by nature.

And there are echoes of these and other earlier works in Food: specifically, the deft clowning, the absurdism, the love of magic and illusion, and the ongoing interest in how humans inter-relate with whatever environment they find themselves in. For EIF, Geoff has previously presented HOME and The Object Lesson, Food being the third in a trilogy rooted in a desire to explore the 21st century human condition, and to place the audience in the centre of the fabric of each show.

As with these earlier works, illusion, installation and home-spun mechanics are all used to create a fabulous environment. In this case, it’s a dinner party, set round an enormous table. There is audience on three sides, and a backdrop of flock wallpaper and an oil painting. There’s an enormous white cloth, and a red satin runner; plates and cutlery and glasses. Geoff Sobelle is our waiter, serving wine and giving out menus. The piece starts slowly (a little too slowly and shakily for me) with audience members invited, via codes on the menus, to share memories of food and drink consumption and cooking. Maybe I hit a bad night, but the stories we got were all pretty dull – tedious holiday memories or, ‘Er, I can’t really remember’ responses that made me squirm a bit.

But never mind – in the next section, things pick up, as different people are prompted to put in their orders. Things get more and more surreal – a bowl of apples or a portion of rice, but also a dish of raw eggs and, in the first of many magical transformations, the lighting state shifts to an icy blue and the white table becomes into an Arctic landscape, our intrepid explorer cutting a circle in the ice and plunging his arm down into the water to capture a slippery fish, delivered wriggling on its plate to the diner. We move away from audience interaction for a while as Sobelle proves his worth as a top-notch clown and magician in a fabulous scene of Gargantuan greed – every single thing to hand seemingly devoured as he moves from one apple to the whole bowl, to the raw eggs, the many platters of rice, and numerous bottles of wine – the lot. Another fabulous transformation as the massive tablecloth and everything on it (including somebody’s mobile phone – that’ll learn ’em) is whisked away to reveal an earthy landscape. Bison roam, grains sprout, tiny tractors are handed to audience members to manipulate. Another hole is dug, and this time it’s oil, not fish, that comes out. Cue the arrival in the landscape of oil rigs and tankers and houses and garages and stores. By now, we are all engaged – building towns and moving trucks  around the space.

The piece ends on a litany. An audience member (me, as it happens!) finds her head and neck gently embraced by Geoff’s hands. ‘Is this OK?’ he quietly asks, and I nod. It turns out that his fingers are loaded with something (working a bit like Bluetooth bud speakers, I suppose) that convey a female voice into my ears – a voice that only I can hear. ’Please repeat what I say,’ says the voice, ‘and don’t worry if you get things wrong’. Millet, barley, corn, wheat, she says, and I say. Later, we’ve moved on to cucumbers, Krispy Kremes, and kumquats.. All the things we’ve hunted and grown and picked and made and marketed and transported across the world. Eaten and digested, discarding what we don’t have a use for. Bison and birds, fish and fowl, quinoa, and Coca Cola – it’s all here.   

Food for thought indeed – and another brilliant success for the legendary Geoff Sobelle, who ‘began as a magician, continued as an actor and arrived as a clown’.  All of those things are in ample evidence here.

Featured image (top of page) Geoff Sobelle: Food

Geoff Sobelle: Food was seen in The Studio, 9 August 2023, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival 2023. 

All other shows presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 

Wunderbaum / Marleen Scholten: La Codista / The Queuer was seen at Zoo Southside as part of Big in Belgium, 8 August 2023

Agit-Cirk: Insomniac’s Fable was seen at Summerhall as part of Start to Finnish, 10 August

Tortoise in a Nutshell: Concerned Others was seen at Summerhall as part of Made in Scotland, 9 August 2023

Cora Bissett: What Girls Are Made Of was seen at Assembly Rooms as part of the Made in Scotland programme, 10 August 2023

Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips: Night Soles, produced by Aurora Nova, was seen at Assembly Roxy, 7 August 2023

Our Bodies, Our Selves – Ed Fringe 2023

Three body positive shows seen at Summerhall – High Steaks, A Spectacle of Herself, and Weathervanes

Sitting on a table in, appropriately enough, the Anatomy Lecture Theatre, Eloina Haines slowly removes the mirror placed in front of her vulva and opens her legs wide to reveal her labia. We are well into her show High Steaks, and the moment of reveal comes after much comic play with the audience that starts with her dashing into the space wearing an accordion as a dress, which is removed to reveal a green merkin made of parsley, with a pair of beef steaks dangling down either side. Surely the weirdest striptease ever seen… 

Eloina is a confident performer, and a rapport with the audience is established, Ed Fringe comedy style, right from the start. The wonkily-played accordion is a great ice-breaker. How are we? she asks. Then, What do we call our bits down there? Specifically, our labia. There are a few answers from the audience, then the recorded text kicks in: Fanny flaps, meat curtains, kebabs…  The very many meat references are why Eloina has the pair of prime steaks on board – dangled from her body, then removed, butchered, and (eventually) fried and served with chopped parsley. Her mum is on hand to help and support with the cooking – the two in conversation throughout.

High Steaks is a show about labia, labia-shaming, cosmetic surgery – and about celebrating what you’ve got, in all its unique beauty. Eloina has interviewed people far and wide, to gather up views on female genitalia from those who own them – those happy with their lot, and those with body dysmorphia. As we’d entered the space, we’d noticed the ‘vulva owners to the front’ signs – so the first two rows are taken up by women. Or by vulva owners, I should say. This is a trans positive show, and there is no assumption made that all women have vulvas and that no men do – the recorded verbatim soundbites include accounts by trans men describing their contentment with their vulvas. We learn also that testosterone makes the clitoris swell and grow so that it becomes like a mini-penis – no need for surgery! 

Talking of surgery, there is a lot of talk – both recorded and live from Eloina – about labiaplasty, the surgical procedure to reduce the size of, or to even up the size of, the labia – which are usually asymmetrical, this is completely normal. A procedure that the 10-year-old Eloina, despite coming from a liberal family with plenty of positive female role models, felt convinced she needed. A procedure that many young women feel they need, shamed by friends or by airbrushed images generated by the porn industry, believing something is wrong with their genitals. But this is no political diatribe – Eloina states her support of everyone’s right to choose any procedure that they feel they need; but she just wants to present the facts, so that people make informed choices. And here are the facts. There are two reasons for labiaplasty, medical and cosmetic – and there are more procedures done for cosmetic reasons than for medical reasons. Young women often don’t appreciate the range of ‘normality’ for shape and size of labia – as with earlobes, or any other body part. So Eloina is here to educate – to ‘raise a middle finger to butchering your body for the aesthetics of another’.

High Steaks is a joyful and celebratory show, with the balance held beautifully between the comedy, the creation of strong visual imagery (a moment where she sits cross-legged weaving her arms through the air makes me think of the Hindu goddess Durga), and a sober sharing of personal experiences and medical facts. In her lovingly-held command of the space, direct address to audience, and use of humour to explore issues around sexuality and body image, Eloina reminds me strongly of the legendary sex-positive performance artist Annie Sprinkle. And that can only be a good thing! Highly recommended for vulva-owners and everybody else.

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself. Photo Holly Revell

Also presenting autobiographical revelations in a body positive mode comes Laura Murphy with A Spectacle of Herself, seen in Summerhall’s Main Hall. In this case the spoken-word (and onscreen text) personal revelations are mixed with musings on space travel in general and Elon Musk’s derring-do’s in particular; and with the philosophy of ethnobotanist and mystic Terence McKenna. There are wise and wonderful words a-plenty, a number of lovely physical/visual vignettes set to great tunes, and some mighty fine aerial rope work. 

To start, we get McKenna’s words voiced by a whacky looking onscreen clown, looming larger than life over us. Imagine, says Terence through the medium of Laura-the-clown: there we are, a foetus in the womb, swimming freely, all our needs met. Then, the walls close in and we are squeezed out. ‘Our medium is meat’ says the voice; and, ‘matter is not lacking in magic, matter is magic’. Thus the notion is set up that our bodies are not some sort of incidental vehicle for our minds and spirits – we are physical, earthed, meaty beings. And how we feel about our bodies and choose to present our bodies is crucial to our existence.

A Spectacle of Herself is a confessional-autobiographical piece, but it is more – an exploration of gender identity and sexuality, of neurodivergence and vulnerability, worked through in a succession of scenes that delight, challenge and amuse in equal measure. There’s a ‘what side of the bed are you lying on?’ listing of likes and dislikes – on the plus side, strap-ons; on the minus side, deodorised vaginas that don’t smell like vaginas, to pick a couple of random examples. There’s a fabulous aerial rope section inspired by that old Diet Coke ad, where a room full of female office-workers swoon at the sight of a male window cleaner downing a can of Coke, whilst the Etta James’ classic ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’ belts out. Laura wanted to be that guy, she tells us, and, topless with a white cloth tucked into her jeans pocket, she climbs her rope and commands the room. Reader, I swooned. There’s a fabulously surreal scene set to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, where Laura puts a cardboard box on her head and repeatedly bonks the mic on the stand with her head, slowly descending down to the floor. Pure Dada. And the Macarena is danced to the tune of ‘Twenty Twenty Vision’ – which is great, a bit like that game they play on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue where they do the lyrics of one song to the tune of another. Dissonance a-go-go.

There is an ongoing motif of the space race and its inevitable link to male energy and ambition. Cue rockets soaring into the ether, and Laura in a white spacesuit in a fabulously slo-mo rope routine, seemingly defying gravity. There is lip-synching to Elon Musk’s voicing of his SpaceX plans – this done whilst crossing the stage on a hoverboard, pumping a balloon placed between her legs that grows into an enormous carnivalesque phallus.    

And to note that there is an absent character onstage – Laura’s partner Ruby, who is referred to constantly with love and appreciation – whether it’s walking their dog together, watching reality TV, holding the space for her when she has panic attacks, or having sex.

A Spectacle of Herself is constructed with care, skilfully directed by Ursula Martinez, and performed with panache by Laura Murphy. Yes, the personal is political; and yes, space is the final frontier. It just depends what sort of space we are talking about…   A gorgeous show, bursting with magical words, images, and actions. Matter is indeed magic. 

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself. Photo Holly Revell

Jian Yi’s Weathervanes describes itself as ‘a rethinking of the beautiful and what is holy’. Drawing on classical depictions of the nude, it re-stages those images as living sculptures – flesh rather than marble – ‘centering queer people of colour’. 

During the daytime, the piece is an installation, featuring light projections and multimedia FX (by Cryptic artist Heather Lander); material constructions (stone, mirrors, branches, leaves, water features) by sculptor/set designer Furmaan Ahmed; and a video work at the entrance depicting naked bodies moving with a meditative slowness, standing on balconies overlooking urban streets. At night, for two shows per evening, the space becomes activated by the addition of four performers – three naked living statues set on plinths, moving with a gentle, minimal precision; and a musician, who is sitting fully-dressed on the floor in a far room, surrounded by a range of different-sized Tibetan bowls and a mixer, creating a very satisying and enriching soundscape. (But perhaps he ought to be naked, too, muses my companion.)

The claims (on the accompanying info sheets) that the piece forms ‘an architecture of queer futurity’ amongst other musings may well be the case – but I feel everyone will forge their own responses to witnessing the piece, and having interpretations proposed seems to lessen it. Yes, it does prompt thoughts about ancestry and our relationship to nature. No, it doesn’t seem to speak to me about the afterlife. Weathervanes does, though, spark thoughts on the inter-connectedness of different forms of holistic movement practice. I find myself thinking about Etienne Decroux’s endeavour to establish corporeal mime as a costume-free practice, so that the focus is on the human form moving in the space. I think fondly of the meditative dance-theatre practices of Indonesian ‘free movement guru’ Prapto; and I think of the Butoh tradition, where the impulse for movement comes from within.

But ultimately, Weathervanes is meditative and beautiful, lovely images set in a resonant soundscape – and that’s quite enough for me.

Jian Yi: Weathervanes

Featured image (top of page): Eloina Haines: High Steaks

Eloina Haines: High Steaks was seen at Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre, 9 August 2023.

Laura Murphy: A Spectacle of Herself was seen in Summerhall Main Hall, 9 August 2023.

Journey to the East Productions/ Jian Yi: Weathervanes was seen 10 August 2023 at Summerhall Basement Galleries.

All shows presented as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023. 

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous – Circus at Ed Fringe 2023

Sacred spaces, peepshows, spooky ghost hunts and duels – all circus life is here at the Edinburgh Fringe 2023

There is circus, and there is circus…  And the Edinburgh Fringe 2023 brings us the full spectrum, from circus-cabaret shows presented at all hours of the day and night, to full-blown extravaganzas from the world’s top companies, such as Australia’s Circa and Les 7 Doigts de la Main from Quebec. Both of these can be found at Underbelly’s Circus Hub on The Meadows, where their two venues, a big top and a Spiegeltent, run shows from 11 in the morning till 11 at night – most full to capacity, from what I saw. 

Then, there are the shows that use circus skills, but are something else altogether. Summerhall has a fair few of these, including Laura Murphy’s A Spectacle of Herself, integrating aerial rope with live art, lip synch, video and autobiographical confession; and Insomniac’s Fable, part of the FIN showcase of Finnish work, bringing together classical ballet and juggling (both of these reviewed elsewhere on this website). 

There’s also Assembly’s big circus-dance presentation for 2023, IMA, which takes its audience into a specially-created visual installation.

Recirquel: IMA

So let’s start with IMA (Prayer), presented by Hungarian company Recirquel, who previously brought My Land to the Fringe (2018). This time round, Recirquel director-choreographer Bence Vági has worked with his team to create a magical performance-installation within Murrayfield Ice Rink. Like the previous show, IMA is a visually stunning and physically impressive piece, but this time a solo work rather than an ensemble piece – although the six-strong ensemble are here, each taking a turn at performing this intensive 40-minute aerial piece which plays numerous times each day. 

As we enter the (ice-free) rink we are given a voile ribbon to add to a fence full of wishes, and then led down a tunnel into a dark dome, where we are sat on bean bags or stools. Looking up and around, every inch of the black space is sparkling with white lights, like stars in a night sky stretching to infinity, reminding us that we are merely tiny points in the infinite vastness of the universe. A lone figure stands in a beam of light, draped in a transparent white veil. The androgynous figure moves with great care and precision, stretches, reaches to the sky above and the ground below, seemingly enacting a personal ritual in a sacred space. The veil is slowly pulled away and the figure, dressed in a neutral-coloured body suit and appearing naked but sexless, reaches up to take hold of a set of looped straps. Lit by a dizzying and dazzling cross-hatch pattern of white laser beams, the figure is propelled up higher and higher to the dome’s ceiling. There follows a flawlessly enacted aerial routine, mixing extraordinarily slow moves that lead to points of stillness – for example, as the performer, in a neck hang, slowly stretches out into a five-point star shape that makes me think of William Blake’s Albion Rose painting, or curls in to a foetal position, or holds a box-split without a tremor for an excruciatingly long time – which contrast with breathtakingly fast twists and turns and jolts and drops, as the composed soundscape moves from ambient to symphonic. Everyman or angel? Either or both. A beautiful experience.

Party Ghost

From the sublime to the ridiculous – and nothing wrong with that. There’s room for both in the circus world. Party Ghost, an Adelaide Festival Best Circus award winner, also presented by Assembly but this time at their central Checkpoint venue, is a cheery exploration of all things macabre, enacted by a pair of terrible twins (Olivia Porter and Jarred Dewey) and directed by Nicci Welks. It has the feel of a late-night Spiegeltent show – although presented mid-afternoon, but that’s Edinburgh Fringe for you. The premise is an afterlife ‘deathday’ party. The performers, swapping outfits and negitiating copious numbers of props throughout, work their frilly little ankle socks off, sibling rivalry played out to the death (and beyond). The terrible twosome are supplemented by an extra person – a stage manager cum performer who joins them in a three-way ghost dance, or takes the props on or off stage dressed in a black widow’s veil – so the impression is somehow of an ensemble, rather then a duet. They use the space well: stage, aisles, auditorium and (slamming) venue door are all put to use in a breathless dash through every horror movie cliche you can imagine.

Highlights include a cleverly comic trapeze act (right near the beginning, which feels a little oddly placed) with the dragged-up Jarred Dewey making a great Morticia Addams; some excellent slapstick as the ‘twins’ scrap over a small table and chair, kicking and wrestling, the tablecloth transforming them into cartoon ghosts; a good acro/hand-to-hand sequence dressed in identical white outfits, in which we see that their talents are very evenly matched; and a juggling act by Olivia Porter to the tune of Dusty Springfield’s ‘Spooky’ that is pleasingly precise in its musicality. Music throughout is chosen well – good to hear the Bee Gees ‘Where is the Sun that Shone on my Head’ – it is dead, it is dead… The violin screech from Psycho is a returning sound motif, cueing frantic racing about to a strobe effect. We also have a soundbite of Vincent Price telling us how to see a ghost – walk around a grave twelve times, backwards, apparently; and we get to sing ‘Happy Deathday to You’ and play ‘Pass Away the Parcel’. If the dead can dance, then here they are – dancing to the end of time. A rip-roaring success.

Aloft presents Sanctuary

And now, from a themed cabaret show to regular cabaret: Aloft’s Sanctuary, which is an odd one. It is a straightforward Spiegeltent circus cabaret show – presented at Circus Hub in The Beauty – no themes, or interconnecting motifs, just a compere, a live three-piece band and a series of good quality acts – but what is odd is that it is marketing itself as ‘an underground circus-cabaret with a punk rock soul’. Really? I don’t think so. It is also odd that the compere (who also happens to be Aloft’s artistic director Shayna Swanson) introduces the show as something different from the usual in its lack of theme and focus on the acts existing just for their own sakes – which is really not that extraordinary, surely? Isn’t this the essence of the circus tradition? That aside, there are numerous strong acts from women artists, including a tightrope walker who explores the relationship between wire, air and ground skilfully; a great suspended pole act to a live rendition of ‘The Killing Moon’; a good hoop act that integrates hoop balancing with hula-hooping; and (inevitably) a decent silks act. There’s a token male who multi-tasks, playing in the band, performing diabolo, and (most interestingly) combining performance poetry/live literature soundbites about blackbirds with juggling. Personally, I could have done without the compere’s tasteless jokes about wetting yourself rather than missing an act to go to the bathroom, and the very tame lion-tamer skit. But overall, a pretty good show. And to mention that Aloft (all the way from Chicago) are also here with the returning Brave Space – a brilliant show which I saw last year, and highly recommend.

Revel Puck Circus: The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – a celebration of fear

Still at Circus Hub, but over in their big top venue Lafayette, come UK troupe The Revel Puck Circus with The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – A celebration of fear. First to say that it’s great to see a new young British company playing to a full house here at the home of circus at the Edinburgh Fringe. They are a robust bunch giving it their all in a straightforward no-nonsense manner, performers dressed down (for the most part) in cheery colourful shirts and trews – not a sequin in sight, and no binary divisions of male and female, although we do get a boy juggler in a blue lycra leotard challenging gender expectations. They bounce on and off stage, a loud soundtrack of well-known tunes (Carmina Burana, Girl from Ipanema, Zorba the Greek, Dock of the Bay) interspersed with some cheery housey-dancey stuff bolstering up the physical action. 

There’s a very lovely Pierrot clown playing out an ongoing gag of being chased by a lion, which progresses nicely from the opening skit that sees her dodging a small remote control toy to the final moment hugging someone in a full-body lion outfit, via numerous other lion puppets or toys of various sizes. She runs and tumbles and rides a rola-bola with gentle ease. This last links us nicely to a giant rola-bola – a seesaw made from a big tyre and a massive plank of wood, giving us a neat ensemble balancing number. There’s a girl with a Cyr wheel, still not that common a sight, and a chainsaw ducking scene perhaps inspired by Archaos (although none of this lot would be old enough to have seen them!). The crowd-pleasing final act is a cloudswing, accompanied by live singing and playing – a nice touch, although they are not the best musicians in the world so it feels slightly low-key. They get a rousing reception, and seem happy and relieved to have got this far. One to watch!

So, also in the Lafayette, it’s time for the big names. 

Circa’s Peepshow (Club Remix)

Circa first – Australia’s finest. Circa’s Peepshow (Club Remix) ‘turns cabaret on its head, literally.’ And yes – we get what it says on the tin: ‘teetering towers of balanced bodies, extreme bending and devilishly precarious aerials’. After last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show Humans, which focuses on pure acrobatic ability played out in a very simple setting, Peepshow comes with more baggage – literally and metaphorically. There’s a big Peepshow sign suspended above the stage, a DJ station, sparkly cabaret curtains to the rear, and floor-lights lining three sides of the square space. There’s also an homage to burlesque tropes in the costumes: the team wearing see-through voile bodysuits with sequinned shorts in an assortment of colours – ruby reds and rusty oranges, royal blues and dove greys – later donning fake fur jackets. As for the skills on display, we get a fabulous silks act bursting with male energy, boasting neck hangs and jerky drops syncopated beautifully to the music; a great hand-balancing number that emerges from a deceptive scene of audience interaction; clever brick juggling, a sensuous and sassy hoop act; and numerous fabulous moments of acro-balance and hand-to-hand – those famous human towers emerging and falling with consummate ease, walks across hands and heads, and breathtaking ‘human skipping rope’ swings and passes. 

Then, there’s the infamous ‘girl in the red high heels’ number, revisited. A man lies on his front. A woman walks across his back wearing the highest of stiletto heels. He then, somehow, moves into a bridge then turns and together they rise up, so the man is now standing with the woman, still in those heels, on his shoulders. She then goes on to perform an aerial straps act still wearing the heels. I remember that when Circa first brought this ‘red shoes’ act to the Edinburgh Fringe there was much debate around the sexual politics: Was it conveying male-female relationships in an unfavourable light? Promoting sadomasochism? Using clichéd porn-inspired imagery, and presenting women (and their shoes!) as fetishised objects? I never felt that way, and thankfully, more people now agree – we’ve moved on to a time when it is acknowledged that ‘performing the femme’ is a choice, not an oppression; that whatever happens between consenting adults is fine; and that dragging up in heels is completely OK for people of any gender. Over the past decade or so, high heels in circus have become something of a thing… Good to see the original and the best.

As for the music in the show: it is, to be honest, hard to tell how much re-mixing is being done live by the DJ. I presume that tracks need to stay more-or-less the same from one show to the next, for the sake of cues and timing – so there’s perhaps a limit to the DJ’s freedom to improvise. But it all sounds good! The music is (as always in Circa’s shows) well chosen, and choreographed to with care – the comic ode-to-striptease played out to Louis Prima’s ‘Just a Gigolo’ is excellent. The remixed ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’ is a memorable moment. 

Peepshow celebrates and subverts the mores and tropes of cabaret and burlesque delightfully, its tricks and turns both ‘homage to’ and ‘unpacking of’ those forms. The show has thrills a-plenty, but is also bubbling with tongue-in-cheek humour – the many uses of the long red evening gloves is a particular highlight – and the acts are worked into the overall picture as skilfully as ever by director Yaron Lifschitz. Peepshow uses cabaret as a point of reference, but it is more than the sum of its parts. Another grand success for Circa!

Les 7 Doigts de la Main: Duel Reality

And so finally to Montreal company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (aka The 7 Fingers), who bring Duel Reality to this year’s Fringe. Although not advertised as such, it’s a reworking of Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story most definitely a point of reference. Montagues and Capulets (or Jets and Sharks) are here replaced by Reds and Blues. As we enter, we are each given a coloured wristband, and asked to sit in the relevant section of the auditorium. 

The action starts within the audience, spilling onto the stage area which is marked out as a sports court with white lines, a pair of Chinese poles standing in parallel in the centre. Round one: ding ding. The rebel-rousing start gives way to a fabulous poles duel between a Reds woman and a Blues man, aided and abetted by their teammates. More jousting: the next round gives us a Red team man juggling with balls and a Blue team woman with clubs, with lots of clever interplay between them. Then, another very different pairing: the star-crossed lovers meet with a gentle hand-to-hand/acro duet, morphing into the masked ball scene (where they realise they are from different ‘houses’) which is played out in harlequin masks using hula hoops – the usual spinning and twirling but evolving into some fabulous ensemble work, with breathtaking dives through the hoops and tumbling, all set to a rip-roaring electro-swing number. There’s a diabolo act to the tune of ‘Red is not my colour, Blue is not my colour’ – and the mood starts to shift. The lovers find themselves in a duet (but apart) in an aerial act using suspended chains. The climax of the battle between Reds and Blues is a fabulous fight to the death on the teeterboard. There is resolution – and it’s a different one to Shakespeare’s! 

One slight reservation is the use of spoken text here and there – it’s not needed, and Shakespeare spoken by non-actors with strong Quebecois accents just doesn’t work well. I know Les 7 Doigts have pioneered the use of spoken text in contemporary circus, from Traces onwards, but perhaps pre-recording text and integrating it into the soundscape would work better in this case? But this is a small quibble – it is otherwise a wonderful show, beautifully choreographed, amazing circus skills, great pacing. 

It’s my final show at Circus Hub after a full day seeing the best of contemporary circus from across the world. Chapeau!

Party Ghost

Featured image (top of page): Circa’s Peepshow (Club Remix).

Recirquel: IMA, Assembly at Murrayfield Ice Rink was seen 7 August 2023.

Double Take/Cluster Arts: Party Ghost at Assembly Checkpoint, seen 7 August 2023

Aloft: Sanctuary, seen The Beauty (Spiegeltent) at Circus Hub, seen 8 August 2023 

The Revel Puck Circus: The Wing Scuffle Spectacular – A celebration of fear; Circa’ s Peepshow (club remix): Les 7 Doigts: Duel Reality were all seen at Lafayette (Big Top) at Circus Hub on 8 August 2023.

The Edinburgh Fringe 2023 runs 5–26 August.

For further details, dates and times, and tickets for all of the above shows see


It’s a Wonderful Life – Ed Fringe 2023

‘Once upon a time there were people between birth and death. We are those people. We are here, and we have come together to remember and forget.’

Thus starts Funeral, the latest work by Flemish masters Ontroerend Goed to arrive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The multi-award-winning company have shocked, surprised and enchanted audiences for the past two decades with a series of radically different shows, and Funeral adds another notch to their belt of successes.

The show, which like all of the Big in Belgium programme is presented at Zoo Southside, takes the form of a secular rite of passage ceremony, with geranium-scented hand towels, candles, spirals of petal confetti, and a number of ‘celebrants’ guiding us and leading off with a succession of litanies and small rituals. There are echoes of Welfare State International’s Dead Good Guides, and Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy of marking key moments in life through ritual. These ideas, very current in contemporary counter-culture, have been taken and woven skilfully into an immersive theatrical experience. Much of the spoken text takes the form of lists. There’s a beautiful call and response on the markers of those absent: the smell of Elnett hairspray, her yellow jacket with the broken zip, his blue eyes shining through his spectacles, her stale cheese biscuits in that old tin. A box of possessions is unpacked and listed: a Polaroid camera, some glucose tablets, a toy diplodocus. Everything is an event, not a thing, we are told. That sneeze, that explosion, that relationship. Yes, but even that stone. It might take a long time, but one day it will be dust. We too are an ‘event’ on this earth. We are finite. All is finite.

The piece is written, designed, directed and enacted with a wonderful care and attention to detail. We are engaged in the process – walking the spiral, singing in Esperanto (a touch of genius), and adding the names of our own dearly departed into the mix. But we are always held. We are here, remembering and forgetting in communion. 

Ontroerend Goed: Funeral

Also part of the Big in Belgium programme, and also addressing matters of life and death – albeit in a very different way – is SKaGeN’s The Van Paemel Family, a highly inventive reworking of a classic Flemish play (by Cyriel Buysse). Set in 1903, in brings us a Belgium divided by class and language, depicting a fierce social struggle for workers’ rights played out through the personal struggles of the Van Paemels, an impoverished farming family exploited by the landed gentry they work for. There is an enormous cast of characters, but only one live actor – the brilliant Valentijn Dhaenens, seen previously in BigmoutH and SmallWar. A screen shaped like a simple drawing of a house brings us the family, a portrait projected onto that screen like a classic Flemish painting – father, mother, a number of adult children (one playing the accordion), and the odd stray cockerel – and Dhaenens starts the show in his first live incarnation as errant son Edward, who joins the socialist workers fighting in the streets, much to the shame of his father. He later embodies the French-speaking Baroness with equal skill – her disgust at the smell of the farm and the noise of the animals is brilliant. Finally he becomes Father, whose misplaced loyalty to his bosses, despair at his poverty, and anger at his children (who variously desert the army, flee to America, get jailed for joining the socialist uprising, and have a child out of wedlock when raped by the Baron’s son) is played out perfectly.  

The relationship between live action and onscreen moving image is worked skilfully, and shifts in scale in the projected video are used to great effect to enhance the power dynamics of the characters. When Mother is seriously ill, she is an enormous figure on screen, her family sitting around the hills of her body like Lilliputians. When the soldiers arrive, their faces loom large, an intimidating presence. 

In our own era of class struggles and dilemmas around fighting poverty and exploitation, it is good to be reminded of the struggles of the past, and to see the relevance to our life and times. Our current dilemmas might manifest in different ways, yet at their heart is the same issue. Too few own too much and exploit too many. SKaGeN show us also that political and socially conscious theatre doesn’t have to take a naturalist form – the physical and visual tricks of the trade of a ‘total theatre’ can be successfully used to tell difficult stories, as witnessed here.

SKaGeN: / Valentijn Dhaenens The Van Paemel Family

This is also very much the case for JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, brought to Assembly Hall by the South African Baxter Theatre Centre, in collaboration with puppet masters Handspring Puppet Company. The show is written and directed by Lara Foot, with puppetry design and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring.  

Coetzee’s 1983 novel brings us the story of Michael K, a poor ‘coloured’ man, born with a cleft lip, who has spent his childhood in institutions, and as an adult works as a gardener in Cape Town, also caring for his mother Anna, who works as a domestic servant. As the country descends into civil war and martial law is imposed, Michael’s mother becomes ill. Michael decides to quit his job and escape the city to return his mother to her birthplace, which she says was on a farm Prince Albert. Thus, the hero’s journey from Cape Town to countryside (and back again) begins… 

The story is brought to life brilliantly in this production, with an ensemble of nine actors and actor-puppeteers moving effortlessly from verbal storytelling to puppet manipulation to physical action, swapping roles and demonstrating a high level of skill in all fields. Of course, the puppets are wonderful – this is Handspring, after all, famous for their creation of the War Horse puppets, and of the magnificent Little Amal, a giant puppet of a child refugee who has been walking the world for the past year or so. They are manipulated using the traditional three-person Bunraku inspired method, and there are many moments of playfulness where the puppeteers’ presence is acknowledged, such as a lovely sharing of food scene. The live action is augmented by a clever set, lighting and sound design, and a great use of projection, depicting the cityscapes and urban landscapes of South Africa that our hero passes through.

The horrors of Apartheid – the segregation, the abuse, the demands for permits to travel anywhere at all – is brought to us clearly, neither over-dramatised not shied away from, just presented for us to witness. The horrors of a war-torn South Africa in the 1960s and 70s – the abusive soldiers, the theft of what little savings a poor old woman might have, the mindless destruction of water pumps and crops, the work camps, the railroad chain-gangs – pile up, one after the other. 

But we do not sink into a mire of despair. There is hope, and there is humour. The hope comes in Michael’s relationship with the land – these seeds will grow long after I am gone, muses our gardener-hero – the love of the land and its ability to regenerate being the key signifier of hope in this adaptation. The humour is there throughout. The building of a cart to carry Michael’s mother Anna across country, cobbled together from an old tin bath and bicycle wheels, is great – and Anna is a great comic character, squealing and moaning and teasing her only son. Even in the darkest moments, touches of humour alleviate the pain and the horror. 

As is the case with Little Amal, the puppet Michael K arouses enormous feelings of empathy and love in the human spectator – puppets have this extraordinary ability. And as with SKAGEN’s The Van Paemel Family, here is a clear demonstration that naturalistic theatre is not the only, or even the first, choice for successfully bringing work with a strong political and social message to audiences.

All human life – and death, an intrinsic part of life – is here to behold in these three very different Edinburgh Fringe 2023 shows.

Baxter Theatre/ Handspring: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Featured image (top): Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Ontroerend Goed: Funeral, and SKaGeN/ Valentin Dhaenens: The Van Paemel Family were both seen at Zoo Southside on 8 August 2023, as part of the Big in Belgium programme.

Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K was seen at Assembly Hall, 7 August 2023.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs 4–28 August 2023. See 

LIMF 2023: As One Door Closes…

We’re entering the final week of the last ever London International Mime Festival, which is bowing out with a bang. Dorothy Max Prior reflects on work seen to-date

January in London: cold, damp, miserable – same as it ever was. But January 2023 is extra miserable because added to the predictably dismal weather and usual midwinter gloominess we have post-pandemic ennui, post-Brexit chaos, continuing government lunacy, endless train and postal and NHS strikes, and more. Just don’t mention the war.

But there is a glimmer of light in the darkness – the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) is back, on full throttle, with fifteen productions (including eight international works) presented in eight different London venues.

So a buzz is in the air, but with this buzz comes the bittersweet knowledge that this year, its 47th year, will be the final edition of the Festival in its present form. Once it’s done and dusted, LIMF directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig plan to continue working together to promote and support physical and visual theatre, in ways yet to be announced. But what they won’t be doing is programming a month-long festival every January…

Not Standing: Through the Grapevine

This year’s Festival kicked off on 16 January at The Place with the traditional launch gathering around a chocolate fountain, followed by the opening show by Alexander Vantournhout’s Not Standing, one of a number of Belgian companies in the 2023 programme. Through the Grapevine is Vantournhout’s third collaboration with fellow circus-dance artist Axel Guerin, a pas de deux in which these two exceptional physical performers play with their physical differences. And like most of LIMF shows, this one is playing to a full house. 

On a sparse stage with simple lighting and no music, dressed minimally in sports shorts, bare-chested, the two bodies encounter each other. They measure up to the other, and they measure themselves in relation to the space, engaging with floor and walls in numerous novel ways. Just how many man-lengths are there to this dancefloor? Holding someone ‘at arm’s length’ takes on a new meaning as there is comic play on the difference in limb length between these two human specimens. The contact between them moves from cautious touches and twists, to grapples and shoves, to a full-on engagement that veers from contact improvisation to all-in wrestling, via capoeira. There is something Olympian about it all. The movement vocabulary shifts again, to full-on acrobalance poses, body supporting body in convoluted and often unexpected ways. A head balance prompts spontaneous audience applause. At around about the halfway mark, the sound of intense drumming kicks in, morphing into an ambient electronic soundscape. The sound of the recorded music is quite a shock after so long without it. Through the Grapevine is a virtuosic display of acrobatic skills. There is no doubting the talent on display here, and there’s novelty and humour a-plenty – but it’s my head rather than my heart that is impressed.  

Gandini Juggling: The Games We Play

I’m back at The Place later in the week to see Gandini Juggling. And this time my heart is completely won over, right from the start. The Games We Play is  a lecture-demonstration created especially for LIMF by company founder-directors Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala. These two have been playing games together for 30 years – they have a repertoire of around thirty productions staged more than six thousand times all over the world, indoors and out. Some of their work – such as the wonderful Smashed and its sequel, Smashed 2 – is created for a large ensemble of jugglers. Some, like 4×4: Ephemeral Architectures, pairs jugglers and dancers. But the core of the company has always been the personal and professional relationship of Sean and Kati, who bonded when working together in Ra Ra Zoo, and together formed Gandini Juggling in 1991. The Games We Play is a complete joy – and as with many earlier shows, brings Sean Gandini’s fascination with maths and magic together with Kati Ylä-Hokkala’s knowledge of and interest in rhythm and choreographic patterns. And of course both are top-notch jugglers.

We start in regular lecture-demonstration mode as we are given a breathless run-through of the juggling basics: the numbers and patterns and terminology. The three-ball basic up to four and five, in colourful cascades and fountains galore; then, they take us down from three to two to one to zero. Analogies are drawn to modern art as the patterns evolve: this one here is a Hockney, that one there a Rothko, and this final big explosion a Jackson Pollock. Sean lectures and Kati demonstrates. When we get to zero, Sean quips that this might be what most people would assume the mime festival to be: a lone Finnish woman onstage juggling invisible balls. 

Then, Sean demonstrates, and Kati disrupts – dragging chairs across the stage, tipping the neatly arranged lines of red and green and pink and orange balls off the trestle table so that they run amok across the floor. Sean shares fascinating historical moments. We learn of Lola the juggling pig and her golden thimbles, and all about the legendary Oklahoma Tunnel Shuffle. There’s a harrowing story of Russian Roulette, set in a prison, when a man with renowned billiard ball juggling skills is told that if he drops a ball, his wife gets shot. And, says Sean, eventually everyone drops a ball, no matter how good they are…  There are also word-free sections of pure blissful physical interaction between the two: a gorgeous classic Gandini dance and juggling section, featuring German tangos and French waltzes; and a lovely percussive game of taps and ball-grabs on a tabletop. There’s even a vaudevillian duet, because every Gandini show needs one; a gratuitous lighting change (ditto); and a moment of partial nudity, to discourage the children coming to the show – a tongue-in-cheek reminder that circus can and should also be adult entertainment. The Games We Play is a true delight to witness. May the Gandinis continue to thrive for many more decades. 

David Glass Ensemble w/ Topi Dalmata: The Brides

Over at Jacksons Lane: another veteran company returning to the Festival are the David Glass Ensemble, here in collaboration with Topi Dalmata  from Italy, bringing together an international cast of performers for the UK premiere of The Brides which cites as its influences Pina Bausch, Mamma Mia, the Marx Brothers, Garcia Lorca and Frida Kahlo. It is directed by David Glass and co-created with Margherita Fusi and Silvia Bruni. 

In the opening scene, a sinister mother figure shrouded in black (the Death Bride) activates seven ‘cocoons’ – plastic body bags cum costume bags lying on the ground. Each gives up its contents and here we are – seven young women together with seven bridal dresses, tugged on gleefully or reluctantly or with curiosity. Already we see before us seven strong personalities – no blank slates, no homogenous bodies. Each presents herself to us in all her individual glory, now dressed in her bridal finery, this then disrupted in the most marvellous way. The Brides is billed as a riotous celebration of female misbehaviour, and it delivers. Our ensemble of grrrrls gurn and tweak and stomp and howl and bite and twist and shout to a fabulous soundtrack that ricochets from ‘Love Hurts’ to ‘Real Nitty Gritty’; taking in Elvis Presley’s ‘Crying’, Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Boots’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ along the way. There’s a truly wonderful piss-take – sorry, homage to – Bausch’s choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, all demonic shaking and hair tossing. 

But there are gentle moments and dark moments, too, as we move through a cycle of birth, death and resurrection. The relationship between the Death Bride and the Brides sometimes evoke The House of Bernarda Alba. The Velvets’ ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ is a recurring motif, delivered by the women standing on chairs or sitting on the floor, gently singing the song whilst wearing blood-red blindfolds across their eyes. This is good, old fashioned (in the best sense of that term) physical theatre: strong but simple staging; inventive lighting; and basic props such as lengths of material, chairs and twigs used to great effect. And of course, it is the strength of the ensemble of eight great performers that wins the day. Bravo, Brides!  

Andrea Salustri: Materia

Also at Jacksons Lane: Materia, performed by Andrea Salustri (Italy/Germany) – which I didn’t catch in London, but saw previously at the Edinburgh Fringe 2022. 

To quote my Edinburgh review: Materia is as much a demonstration of practical physics and engineering skills as an art show – although all is done with the utmost artfulness. A calm and serious looking young man kneels onstage, leaning over an electric fan which has been placed on its side. He feeds polystyrene balls into the wind current created by the fan and they move around in a circle, jostle each other, and eventually (for some, anyway) get edged out and on to the floor. He steps away, and over to a sheet of polystyrene, which is stacked between two fans which counterbalance each other and keep it upright. This is just the start. Later, there are all sorts of complicated games involving carved or shredded polystyrene, multiple electric fans, and a monochrome lighting plan that plays with the extremities of light and dark, as shadows are cast and strobes highlight the mechanised action. What starts as a straight forward ‘human manipulates object’ scenario evolves into a situation where the objects seem to be calling the shots. Creativity and destruction are balanced out – and there’s plenty of gentle humour too, as we (inevitably) anthropomorphise these polystyrene constructions and create narratives of our own. Here, a mechanical creature asserting its right to survive; there, a tide ebbing and flowing. The final stage picture gives us a grouping of around six automata all firing on full cylinders, accompanied by a great ‘industrial’ soundtrack. It is a truly novel example of brilliant object theatre.

Thick & Tight: Tits and Teeth: A Retrospective of a Dazzling Career

At Shoreditch Town Hall, leading UK visual theatre company Theatre Re returned with The Nature of Forgetting, a LIMF co-commission that was developed with neuroscience professor Kate Jeffery and the Alzheimer’s Society, and performed around the world since its premiere at the Festival in 2017. At the same venue, Thick & Tight (also from the UK) returned to LIMF for the fifth year in succession with Tits and Teeth: A Retrospective of a Dazzling Career, a collection of best bits from their back catalogue. Some all- time favourites return to the stage including the hilarious bouffon encounter between Miss Havisham and Queen Victoria, described thus by Lisa Wolfe in her review at Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre: ‘… a modernist ballet, Queen Have and Miss Haven’t, pitches Queen Victoria against Miss Havisham in a mourning battle… Hair wrenching and breast beating their way through complex choreography that is full of gesture and expression, they compete for the misery prize. Whose loss is greatest, the young widow or the jilted bride? Lit with a rich colour palette that makes great use of shadows, it’s a thrilling ride.’

Told By An Idiot: Charlie and Stan

Told by an Idiot are another returning company, back at Wilton’s Music Hall with Charlie and Stan (previously called The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel). Director Paul Hunterimagines a relationship between Chaplin and Laurel that almost certainly didn’t exist; a ‘comically unreliable’ tribute to these two greats of physical comedy. It could be said that in the retelling of known facts, the re-imagining of the relationship, and the speculation on events that might (in a parallel universe) have occurred, Hunter is inventing the truth. Fabulous physical theatre, and good to see it return toWilton’s, which is such a gorgeous setting, and perfect for this piece.

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Famous Puppet Death Scenes

From the depths of the Canadian wilderness The Old Trout Puppet Workshop bring Famous Puppet Death Scenes to The Pit, Barbican. Matt Rudkin described it thus in his review: ‘The central concept, as introduced by an older host (puppet) character, is that by showing us [death] we will be better prepared to face our own mortality. There follow very many scenes featuring the deaths of puppets…  The set is impressive: an Art Deco styled construction featuring a central, curtained puppet booth and two smaller booths at each side. Each scene is so varied in style and staging that it is impossible to get bored, and as the show proceeds we get some breathtakingly beautiful and haunting scenes. The soundtrack is artfully chosen to enhance the different moods, and the visual trickery is at times quite extraordinary, and will make you want to rush backstage and see how’s it’s done. It’s all so inventive and exquisitely realised – kind of like the Muppets meets Monty Python meets Tadeusz Kantor.’

Still Life: Flesh

Still Life, rising star of Belgium’s contemporary theatre scene made their UK debut with Flesh, a ‘playful, disruptive drama about our need for affection and recognition’ that played to great acclaim at the Avignon Festival 2022 (read Total Theatre’s previewhere). The show comprises four vignettes. Each of the four pieces, in one way or another, deal with death or transformation of the human body. The first piece investigates the dying body; the second is about modifying the body through plastic surgery; the third investigates the dissociation between body and mind, as played out through a VR experience; and the fourth piece explores re-connecting where there has been disconnection. Each of the four pieces takes one key scenario and works through it with a meticulous care for detail. The central idea is the driver. For example, in the final piece, the question is: what if we place four warring siblings in a room with their mother’s ashes?

Still Life’s work is often described as ‘visceral’. In Flesh, we are not encountering surreal, ambivalent landscapes – the company create tangible environments, peopled by very real and present physical bodies, and then add a twist to the tale. It is the juxtaposing of seeming opposites – the terrible and the funny, the real and the imitation, the present and the absent – that is at the heart of the company’s work, and what makes it such a great success. 

Mossoux-Bonté: The Great He-Goat.

More to come… 

LIMF shows still to come at the time of writing (27 January 2023): at The Place, Belgium’s Mossoux-Bonté presents the UK premiere of The Great He-Goat. Inspired by the famous Pinturas Negras of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, Mossoux-Bonté has created a powerful, award-winning work for eleven dancers and their life-size puppet doubles, bringing a museum at night to life. 

At the Barbican Pit, Dorothy James & Andy Manjuck (USA) present the UK premiere of Bill’s 44th, a puppet tragi-comedy for grown-ups.

In the Barbican Theatre Belgium’s Olivier Award-winning dance-theatre innovators Peeping Tom present the UK premiere of their new and most ambitious production. Triptych: The missing door, The lost room and The hidden floor – three enigmatic and seductive stories that come together in a trilogy of shifting time, memory and premonition, played out in cinematic scope and atmosphere.

The acclaimed masters of mask-performance Familie Flöz (Germany) return to the Festival for the first time since 2016 with Feste, a clever social commentary about the search for understanding and happiness, presented at the Peacock Theatre.

At Little Angel Theatre, String Theatre’s A Water Journey explores themes of displacement, exile, and the importance of solidarity and friendship in caring for our Earth and her living creatures. Performed with newly created, long-string wood-carved marionettes and silhouette animation. 

String Theatre: A Water Journey

In the film programme: an online screening of Jos Houben & Marcello Magni’s Marcel, dedicated to the memory of Marcello Magni. Online until Sunday 5 February 2023.

London International Mime Festival (LIMF), the UK’s annual festival of contemporary visual theatre, opened on Monday 16 January and runs until Sunday 5 February 2023.

Full programme details and ticket booking for all shows:

A statement from London International Mime Festival: LIMF is evolving. Founded in 1977, its 47th year will see the final edition of the festival in its present form. Directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig plan to continue together to promote physical and visual theatre, maintain their consultancy and advisory roles and encourage development of physical and visual theatre artists and innovative work. Further information in due course:

 London International Mime Festival is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. 

Featured image (top of page) and above: Peeping Tom: Triptych: The missing door, The lost room and The hidden floor