Circus Ronaldo’s publicity and programme for Amortale are contrarily earnest: we’re told about the the rich traditions of a sixth-generation travelling family circus, the nostalgia for a primal theatre not understood but experienced, the meeting of tragedy and trivia. But although it encompasses all of these things, the show is fundamentally a comic performance of a performance going catastrophically wrong. It is structurally and narratively in a trope familiar enough in physical and visual work but perhaps even more celebrated in more mainstream theatre: in Frayn’s Noises Off or the current all-conquering brand of The Play That Goes Wrong. The troupe are, we are told early on, ‘tired of being funny.’ Instead they will present to us the story of Adam and Eve, and a heroic puppet opera. This they do, although their efforts are constantly undermined by incompetence, infighting between the cast and crew, disintegrating sets, power cuts, and other inconveniences.
A show like this needs strong characters who can intrigue in their performance and also their ‘backstage’ roles, and here they are broadly stock characters – the autocratic ringmaster trying to hold things together, the aloofly pretty young female artiste, the aging mezzo who thinks she’s a soprano (while everyone else thinks she should stick to being the accompanist), the self-important baritone, the stagehand on the make, and so on – but all richly detailed and properly set up with their own objectives, dreams, and grievances.
A show like this in a circus/visual theatre form needs, of course, to include a lot that goes right as everything goes wrong, some straightforward elements of skill and spectacle. Supported by the backbone of expert clowning, we have tightrope-walking in high heels, an astonishing balancing and juggling act, moments of stage bravura and beauty like the sudden transformation of a puppet into a full-scale human moonlit trapeze act, accomplished live music. There is an abundance of technical spectacle too, with explosions, fire-breathing puppets, rain on stage. As a puppeteer one tries not to take it personally when puppetry is not among these skills – although the puppets are beautifully and ingeniously crafted, the operation is all intentionally unfocused dolly-waggling, in that comic tradition of being symbolic rather than actual theatricality.
The most put-upon of the clowns also makes puppets – his crude ‘pinocchios’ that are various sizes of wood (and other things) with a stick-nose stuck through them. He tries to sell us these for £50 and then begins an extended audience interaction sequence when one of us is accused of stealing one.
Throughout, in fact, the audience are held closely, played to and listened to, and in this very large theatre we feel as intimately involved as we would in the big top it was originally designed for: a hallmark of a great clown show.
So. It’s not, perhaps, radically innovative. But Amortale is a hugely entertaining, warmly big-hearted, spectacularly skilful show. A real treat.