Author Archives: Richard Cuming


About Richard Cuming

Richard Cuming is currently a Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts at the University of Winchester. He was a founder member of clown troupe Zippo & Co. In 1986 he formed performance company fishproductions dedicated to performance in non-theatre spaces. His interests are in contemporary clown practices and he has a PhD entitled ‘The Clown and the Institution’.

Cirque Berserk

Cirque Berserk is a tightly-packed sensory and sensual ride which is thrilling, charming, comic and nerve-shredding, often simultaneously.

The Timbuktu Tumblers open the show and set the tone for what is to follow. A troupe of highly skilled acrobats, diving through hoops and building human pyramids, the act becomes more and more energetic as it builds to its finale, combining finesse with an assured execution which still feels effortless and relaxed. These characteristics are demonstrated in other acts too, where great skill is accompanied with playfulness.  For example, the pounding rhythms of the drumming in the bolas – weighted cords used as weapons for hunting in Argentina, but here to create thrilling drumming rhythms – act of Luciano Gabriel Carmona and Germaine Delbosq, slow down at one point as Luciano gently swishes his long hair with the bolas, nearly combing it, provoking laughter and a sense of relief from the audience, before building up the tension again with flaming bolas which engulf the duo in the whirling fire. By contrast, the Revolution Troupe from Cuba present a nail-biting springboard act, whose somersaults only just fit in the stage of the EICC.  At the end of their acts the artistes pose and stare calmly out at the audience, with entirely justifiable pride. Other acts, such as the graceful aerial straps act by Jackie Louise, provide punctuation marks in the driving energy of the show.   

Many of the acts are self-contained nevertheless, there is a strong theatrical frame to the show which meshes the acts together so that they criss-cross each other and intertwine. This is most evident in the storyline of Paulo Dos Santos, whose clowning in his repeated attempts and failure to plug in the cable to switch on the Circus sign hanging above the stage, is both comic and touching, as at the same time he tries to woo one of the dancers who intersperse the acts, repeatedly failing until he performs his own aerial straps act. In contrast the performance by wheelchair user Rafael Ferreira, who has no legs, and his acrobatic partner, Alan Pagnota, is a beautiful and delicate piece of circus theatre, in which they perform a faultless hand-to-hand balancing routine. This act is truly inspiring and moving. 

Cirque Berserk creates a world in which much is literally and metaphorically upside down, particularly in the central set-piece in which many of the performers enter on a gypsy cart to create a continuous carnival of skill. Highlighted here are knife throwing from Toni and Nikol from the Czech Republic, foot juggling by Germaine Delbosq and Elberel Ebbe from Mongolia, who is brought onto the stage in a bottle from which she emerges to perform her contortion act and then, whilst in a handstand, threads a bow and arrow with her feet and fires the arrow at a target whilst upside down! Whilst the whole show is spectacular it culminates in the incredible motorbike finale, The Globe of Death, by The Lucius Team in which five bikers roar around inside a steel mesh globe, missing each other by a hair’s breadth, whilst raising the hairs on my head.

Framing this upside-down world into which the audience are transported are the eclectic music and sound, designed by Matthew Bugg, costumes by Dianne Kelly, the set designed by Sean Cavanagh, artistic direction by Julius Green and produced by Martin Burton. For me this show synthesises both traditional and contemporary circus to create an inclusive performance which cuts across boundaries. Judging by the large audience of all ages in the somewhat hangar-like space of the EICC, Cirque Berserk is truly popular in its appeal – and rightly so. As my nine-year-old companion said, ‘ Wow! Everyone should see this circus’.         


Paolo Nani: The Letter

Paulo Nani saunters onto the stage, wearing a minimal costume of black trousers, lace-up boots, a white T-shirt and clip-on braces, with his hair in tufts. He pauses, looks at us and raises a quizzical eyebrow. We laugh and are subtly drawn into his world. He bows and we applaud, which he acknowledges yet undercuts with deprecating looks and gestures. He rapidly speaks a couple of sentences trying out several languages, French, Italian, German, Danish, punctuating each one with bewilderment at our lack of understanding, as though to say, ‘Where am I and who are you?’ Eventually, he seizes upon English, and announces that he’s going to write the same letter in several different ways. Shrugging his shoulders apologetically, he gestures towards a small table on which are a few small props – a pile of envelopes, stamps, a half-full bottle of wine, a glass, a framed photograph, and a red pen. In these few minutes he has set up a tension between the apparent simplicity and naivety of the clown and his precise skills, in which each gesture and look is calculated to respond to and engage with our reactions to him.  There is a complicity with the audience which suggests ‘I’m just like you’ – but it is already clear that he is a master clown.

He holds up a storyboard on which is written ‘Normal’.  Sitting down at the table, he picks up the pen, takes a swig of wine, evidently horrible, which he spits out, looks at the photo, turns it away from him with regret, which reveals portrait of a woman. He quickly writes the letter, licks the envelope and sticks on the stamp. He stands up, but realises his pen had no ink, so takes the letter out, and throws it away, then exits to our applause. He returns with the storyboard, resets the props and reveals the next style. The resetting becomes a running thread, punctuating the styles, and is playfully woven into the fabric of the performance. Likewise, throughout the performance he creates a soundscape with the props. Banging down the wine bottle, the sound of the wine being poured, tearing up the letter, scraping the chair on the floor, plus his use of grunts and tuts, provide a varied musical and rhythmic accompaniment to his actions, fitting each style. 

Some of the styles are performance genres, such as ‘Western’, ‘Horror’, ‘Silent Film’. Others, such as ‘Backwards’ ‘Surprise’, ‘Two Things at the Same Time’, ‘Without Using Arms’, ‘Repetition’, demanding virtuosity in the physical difficulty of accomplishing them, and imaginative play in how to approach them. Each style requires a different performance rhythm and level of play. He uses grotesque mime in ‘Horror’, in which drinking the wine turns him into a monster. In ‘Circus’ he includes many over-the-top bows, and cries of ‘hup’ at each movement.  ‘Drunk’ is beautifully nuanced in that Nani performs it as someone who is clearly drunk, but is attempting to appear sober. In ‘Without Arms’ he constantly teeters on the edge of failure. To pour out the wine he has to pick up the wine bottle in his mouth, hold it in his knees, remove the cork with his teeth, manoeuvre the bottle onto the table, tip it to gently dribble the wine into the glass, using the pen in his mouth to guide him.  The tension mounts during this sequence, but there is laughter at the absurdity of the task, the contortions he has to go through, and applause when he succeeds. Whilst he uses some time-honoured clown gags throughout, such as a routine where he gets his braces stuck round his chair in ‘Drunk’, his timing of the gags and the skill with which he builds them up, delaying the moment of realisation for him and the audience, are superbly done.        

Throughout the performance he playfully engages with his audience with looks and gestures, occasionally asking them to help him by holding props. This culminates in ‘Circus’ in which he chooses a seated audience member to throw the pen directly into his hand. As expected she fails at first, but eventually she achieves this feat to both applause and laughter.  He then presents her with a bunch of flowers, but again undercuts this by exiting and returning with a handful of heather to announce that this is the first time anyone has ever succeeded, and this would have been her consolation prize for failure. Yet the finale is itself a beautifully fluid piece of movement in which he reprises the show and all the styles he has performed, before ending with a magic trick in which the photo has disappeared from its frame. 

Created in 1992 with Nullo Facchini, Nani has been performing The Letter throughout the world for 27 years and has done over 1500 performances honing and polishing it, so that it has become a classic of clowning. Whilst it might be argued that the show is not pushing performance boundaries, I was nevertheless reminded of Raymond Queneau, the French experimental writer and member of the avant-garde group Oulipo, whose book, Exercises in Style, first published in 1947, consists of a short story about a man catching a bus, who sees a man in a straw hat, and then sees him later at the station. This deliberately banal story is then reworked in 99 other literary styles and is an experiment in form and virtuosity.  I don’t know whether Nani has drawn on Queneau’s book for The Letter, but it strikes me that the show is an experiment in virtuosity and creativity too. The constraints of compression, and working on a small canvas, plus the simplicity of the story, paradoxically give Nani the freedom to play across a broad yet detailed range of styles. The show is an absolute delight, and Nani is a consummate performer, who also reminds the audience of great clowns of both the past and the present – of which Nani is undoubtably one.



Chris Lynam - ErictheFred

Chris Lynam: ErictheFred

Chris Lynam - ErictheFredChris Lynam is a master clown who has been a stalwart of street performance, cabaret, festival and stage for over 30 years.   Often outrageous, frequently provocative, sometimes aggressive and dangerous, he is a trickster figure whose set pieces are undercut by manic improvisations from a quicksilver persona which manages to both delight and outrage his audience.

In ErictheFred Chris covers new ground in which he performs a less exuberant, more meditative role – an ageing, red-nosed, pierrot-style clown who is looking back on his memories, hopes, and dreams, successes and failures.  Developed with collaborators including John Wright and Thomas Kubinek, the show synthesises silent comedy routines presenting a range of emotions, as when he repeatedly encounters and plays with a butterfly, manipulated offstage by the stagehands, which is always slightly out of his reach.  This image is simultaneously realistic and dreamlike, and Lynam manages to convey this tension through his virtuoso skills of body and face as well as his play with his audience.  His performance is counterpointed by haunting music and sound by composer Kevin Sargent, which reinforces the hallucinatory feel of the show.  At other times the show approaches tragedy, such as the scene towards the end of the show when, reminiscent of the commedia dell’arte lazzi in which Arleccino attempts suicide, Chris attempts to hang himself.  At first he is unable to do so as the noose doesn’t work properly, or a strand of rope keeps getting in the way.  Eventually he succeeds in leaping off his props box only to discover that the rope is elastic and bounces him back up again.  True to form, objects take on a life of their own, and the clown will not die.

The show is enhanced by excellent use of technology and projection onto a gauze front cloth, which allows Chris to confront various versions of himself using digital animation which veer between life-size and magnified or minimised forms of the character of Eric.  Here too he plays with a delicacy and a subtlety which suggests a character that is elusive, changeable and defies attempts to pin him down.  Just when you think you have grasped hold of him he slips away.  Drawing on these techniques and effects ErictheFred has the potential to be a vehicle for the clown in the twenty-first century.  Yet at times it feels as though Chris’s performance is constrained by the weight of the demands of the show which require him to balance deep emotions with the earthiness of the clown.  To some extent the performance lacked a playfulness and freedom which would have enabled the show to go into darker and more challenging territory.

In the world outside the show, there is a page on Facebook for clown discussions entitled Clown Power.  The comments about clown and clowning can sometimes become theoretical and highfalutin’, and Chris will bring the debate down to earth by posting a single word comment of ‘sosidge’.  What this delicate and touching performance needs perhaps is more grounding – that is, ‘sosidge’.  However, it is early days for this demanding and difficult show and when, towards the end, the character is subjected to a hilarious collapsing set, but emerges unscathed from the ensuing chaos, awkwardly triumphant to serenade his audience on an oversized, battered French Horn, there are glimpses of its potential in its mixture of foolishness, slapstick and tragedy.