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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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!
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 www.edfringe.com