Contemporary circus, like dance before it, was once perched precariously on the outer edges of the performing arts scene – insiders headed to Circus Space or Circomedia to get their fix; outsiders thought themselves daring for going to see Cirque du Soleil whenever they visited (and every time that company was reviewed in its early UK appearances, the review came with an astonished comment that there were – gosh! – no animals, and it wasn’t aimed at children). The Soleil model soon became the new traditional.
All that’s changed, with circus of all sorts programmed in built venues across the UK, and a strong feature of outdoor arts festivals nationwide. We have an educated audience for circus, both generally across these British and Irish Isles, and specifically at the Edinburgh Fringe, which has strong circus programmes at numerous venues, most notably those run by Assembly and Underbelly.
Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows is the Fringe’s only dedicated circus space, and features two venues which run shows day and night throughout August. The Lafayette is a 550 seat-big top) and The Beauty is a 500-seat Spiegeltent. The two venues are named after one of the world famous circus performer and illusionist The Great Lafayette and his dog Beauty, who famously both died in Edinburgh in 1911.
Here’s three very different circus shows seen at the Hub. All had full and highly appreciative audiences… And take a look elsewhere on Total Theatre Magazine’s reviews section for more circus shows reviews, at Circus Hub and elsewhere. It’s a bumper year for circus at the Fringe!
Race Horse Company’s Super Sunday is an artier and more knowing take on the ‘boys with their circus toys’ model, presented at the Circus Hub big top, Lafayette. If you can imagine a wild dream – sometimes verging on nightmare – of what happens at the fairground after dark, this is it. The carousel horses come off their roundabout and canter around – the ludicrous multicoloured hobby horse meets pantomime horse costumes/whole body masks are wonderful. Talking of which, we also have a morose and tatty six-foot teddy bear – I imagine him as the prize on the ding-the-bell strongman contest come to life. He gets catapulted into the heights. There are teeter boards and trampolines, the later of which, after a spectacular sequence involving all six of the fabulous Finnish performers, becomes a toddlers’ bouncy play-space filled with garish plastic balls There’s a crazy car catapult, and in an odd turn – perhaps because it is Sunday in the world of the show – we get a crucifixion scene that would give The Life of Brian a run for its money, the wooden cross eventually turning into a Russian beam. The grand finale is a Wheel of Death – rarely seen these days. It’s massive: two giant hamster wheels joined together, spinning on an axis. ‘Jesus’, his long hair flowing, is fastened to the underneath of one wheel, seemingly just with clingfilm, whilst the others take turns leaping on and off the wheels as they dip down. As in every other scene in this brilliant show, the pace is frenetic, the performers’ stage presence cheekily boyish and playful, and the skills astonishing. If you want all the wows of traditional circus delivered with contemporary knowingness, this is the show for you.
Company 2’s Le Coup, seen at The Beauty (Circus Hub’s other venue), is a perfect Spiegeltent show. It’s presented by the company that brought us Cantina and Scotch and Soda, and is another feel-good whoop and holler outing. (The company do also make more experimental circus theatre work presented in regular end-on theatre settings, but that’s a whole other story.) The premise this time round is that the company are a travelling boxing show, who have ‘nothing to lose and everything to gamble’. So ding ding, here we go – welcome to the ring, amongst other magnificent characters: The Ugly Hungarian, The Sisterless Twin, Sally the Alleycat, the King of the Tent, and Barry the Cross-Dressing Builder. It’s brash, it’s bawdy – and it is bursting at the seams with strong circus acts, all mulched into the storyline with consummate ease. There’s apache-dance inspired acro, with girls swung madly around the space; men with red-painted forearms wrestling themselves in and out of gasp-worthy acrobalance poses; and hand-balancing on a construction made out of beer barrels – barrels previously used in a ludicrous human turtle race. There’s a live band, Father Grant and the Blunt Objects, all multi-instrumentalists (surf guitar, banjo, trumpet, drums, keyboards and more), featuring The Murderess, who gives us a whimsical folksy song about how she’d ‘kill again tomorrow’, which follows on from the excellent (male) solo trapeze act in which he turns the trapeze in on itself and ties himself in knots, accompanied by The Murderess on toy piano. The company use the audience and the auditorium brilliantly: there’s fake money issued to bet on the turtles; the foolish King with his bell-dinging device; the big and beefy Barry the Builder clambering over seats, naked but for two strategically placed hats; and hair-hanging referee ‘Audrey’ racing up and down the aisles, rounding up ‘contestants’. The finale is a fabulous cat-fight between Sister and Sally. Le Coup is a gloriously (mock) gory night out – a raucous rollercoaster ride through vaudeville’s darker histories.
Meanwhile, back at Lafayette, Circa: Humans makes a return appearance to the Fringe. Most of the action is floor-based acrobatics, tumbling or hand-to-hand – rolls and flips, rising and falling towers, walking on shoulders, swinging around or through bodies – although there’s some aerial (corde lisse and a three-person straps tag-team). There’s a hand-balancing act on tiny floor-level red bricks,and a clever take on the old vaudeville favourite, the Rag Doll routine, as a woman is puppeteered around the stage by her male partner. The transitions from one section to another are beautifully managed, and the relationship between performers (and occasionally, when they break the fourth wall, with audience) is gentle and touching. As always with Circa, women frequently base, and/or take the initiative. Music is brilliantly chosen, with Caetano Veloso’s Triste Bahia a firm favourite – used for a long and beautifully enacted acrobatics sequence that loosely references Brazilian capoeira. On second viewing, I love the show even more than ever – just human bodies in space, doing clever and beautiful things – who could ask for anything more?
Featured image (top): Company 2: Le Coup, at Underbelly Circus Hub’s Spiegeltent, The Beauty.
For full details of all Circus Hub shows, see here