Adrian Berry samples the circus delights seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 whilst judging the brand-new Total Theatre /Jacksons Lane Award for Circus Theatre.
Edinburgh this year was a bit of a double-edged sword for me, so to speak. I was actually planning my first year off in 15 years after a few trips abroad – including to Scandinavia to catch the CIRKO Festival in Helsinki, and the rather mind-blowingly good new Racehorse show at Subtopia in Stockholm. So I was looking forward to some London time for the first August in aeons. But then the Total Theatre Awards came a-knockin’ and Jacksons Lane found itself supporting a brand new award for circus this year. My year off therefore didn’t exactly pan out but, on the plus side, I got to judge and present the award, hang out with some amazing artists… oh, and catch the shows themselves.
It was an awfully strong list for an inaugural award, I was pleased to find, and an eclectically mixed bag – from lo-fi small-scale British work to the cream of international artists. I started with Circa’s Beyond, first seen in the UK at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2013, where it was presented in a Spiegeltent – here transposed to the Underbelly enormodome the McEwan Debating Hall (scene of their last two productions at the Fringe). As with Wunderkammer, seen here last year, the company presented the work on a sparse set, letting the skilled technique speak for itself; and once again with a loosely threaded narrative/aesthetic which, at times, held the production together. The Circa of old would often rely on a show-and-tell Variety approach, but in 2014 have mutated into something much more dynamic and character-driven. Beasts, beastiality and beats were the driving force behind Beyond, with some rare-to-find female base acrobatics amidst rabbit heads and Rubik’s cubes, with a truly exhilarating Chinese Pole finale involving all seven performers. Yes it’s grand, grandiose and a crowd-pleaser, but Circa don’t rely on nubile young things or trickery to try to seduce. Circa are the real deal and their work comes from the heart and mind.
A skip and a hop over to New Town to venture inside a rickety, archaic canvas tent beneath the stars… and the beating rain and blustering wind. Théâtre d’un Jour’s L’Enfant Qui was a piece full of darkness and infused with carny-culture, as much led by mime and puppetry as by circus but with a genuine and rarely seen integration of the forms. Nothing felt forced, and the tale of sculptor Jephan de Villier’s childhood and his journeys and adventures through a forest captured young and old imaginations alike, as we sat enthralled while the puppet Jephan pilfered our belongings, gently stroked our faces, and allowed us to live his wide-eyed life vicariously as, through him, we marvelled at the dextrous acrobatics, improvised balancing on rustic materials and exquisite ensemble work. Truly enchanting.
By my own admission I couldn’t fully get with Baccala Clown’s Pss Pss, but the three standing ovations from a sold-out rapturous crowd seemed to prove otherwise. With fairly conventional, yet warm-hearted clowning archetypes, this clowning duo demonstrated skilled acrobalancing, tumbling and some nimble trapeze work as well as a (slightly over-stretched) Keaton-esque routine with a stepladder. It was essentially small-scale outdoor street theatre in a large indoor space, but their humour and integrity filled the room.
Back-tracking to my preceding show: maybe my slightly-skewered view of Pss Pss was the effect of having just been fully blown away by a bare stage and three lads whose star is most definitely on the ascent, but this just-out of-nappies company (in circus terms) made my Fringe. Barely Methodical Troupe’s Bromance was the eventual winner of the (deep breath, long award title coming) Total Theatre/Jacksons Lane Award for Circus Theatre, and rightly so. It is rare for a brand new British company to a) exist b) produce a full-length work in their first year and c) bring it to the Edinburgh Fringe, let alone run away with such a prestigious award, but it is equally rare to find home-grown work of such purity and agility. A tale of three boys and their relationships, I remember seeing a work-in-progress six months ago, when they were not long out of training (all three came out of the National Centre for Circus Arts, formerly known as Circus Space, and won last year’s Circus Maximus prize). After the sharing, I asked them how Bromance came about. Their answer summed up the show in a simple statement: What did it mean that a bunch of heterosexual men would leave circus training sessions still holding hands? What did it say about their relationships and masculinity? In an age populated with peer pressure on men and women to conform to physical and sexual stereotypes, Bromance explored BMT’s personal dynamic and interaction; how they are perceived, and how they perceive themselves. Where it could have been flippant it was funny, and where it could have been preachy it was moving. The circus within the context felt perfectly balanced (unintentional pun), and tiny, detailed, almost balletic movements segued into spectacular acrobatic routines between Louis Gift and Beren D’Amico, coupled with possibly the finest Cyr Wheel routine ever seen on these shores from Charlie Wheeler. It’s not quite finished, but that was part of the excitement – seeing the trio experiment with narrative and form whilst simultaneously leaving an audience full of wonder and awe. Watch it grow.
Gravity & Myths’ A Simple Space was a returning delight and, although it still feels like observing a work-out in a training room at times, this is paradoxically the joy and beauty of the piece. As I stated last year in my round-up, the ensemble are self-taught/self-trained, but this year possibly not so self-produced (the brilliant Aurora Nova are behind their return in 2014). What felt like DIY punk-circus in the purest sense last year somehow felt a little forced this time around, but you can’t argue with the humility, athleticism and sheer strength of this rather amazing ensemble. Some of the naivety has perhaps dissipated, but in its place is a more confident approach that will see them adapt to a much larger scale in years to come.
Finally, Circo Aereo’s delightful The Pianist seemed to be most people’s highlight of the Fringe, and rightly so. A delicate piece of comedic mime with some beautifully understated tumbling and physicality, our helpless buffoon led us through 50 minutes of pure pleasure as Thomas Monckton’s minimal tale of his own lost symphonia made us smile and swoon. The aerial work on the chandelier may have felt a little contrived, but The Pianist was still a rare thing of elegant simplicity. A clown I could genuinely warm to.
So I was glad I made it 15 years in a trot. Circus-wise, there was perhaps not so much in terms of volume in this year’s Fringe compared to last year’s plethora, but sometimes less is more and 2014 was definitely a case of quality over quantity. A golden year – expect great things from these artists in the future. And the thought of taking a break? Well here’s to my 16th Fringe in 2015.
Jacksons Lane is currently hosting six new contemporary circus works-in-progress as part of its Transmission circus residency programme. See www.jacksonslane.org.uk for more details.