Circus Hub at Edinburgh Fringe 2015 is offering an eclectic selection of contemporary circus shows of all sorts, from bright and breezy crowd-pleasing family shows to grown-up late night spectacles, via a healthy amount of experimental and boundary-challenging work from across the globe.
The two tents, The Lafayette and The Beauty, sit in the Meadows on a site decorated in primary colours. During the day, it all looks a bit like a children’s playground. By night, multi-coloured lights focused on the white domed tents turn the site into a more outdoor festival vibe.
Due to late openings, I don’t get to see all the shows I’d hoped to in the first week of the Fringe, but eventually managed to see a good selection across the board of genres and tastes.
Lost in Translation Circus bring us The Hogwallops, in the early morning slot in the big tent (Lafayette). It’s family friendly, but certainly not a children’s show – there’s something for everyone. Inspired by Roahl Dahl’s The Misfits, and an Italian film called Bruti, Sporchi e Cattivi (Ugly, Dirty and Bad), the show circles around a batty Hillbillly family. The homespun set gives us a rough-and-ready kitchen: wooden table, wobbly standard lamp, chests and boxes. There’s an old fashioned transistor radio, from which we hear 1930s jazz and blues, and crackly news reports about population shifts in America. And here are The Hogwallops, posing for a family photo, two younger men, one older man, and two women. There’s also a lone musician at the rear of the space, equipped with laptop, accordion and various other instruments (bongo drums, sitting rather incongruously in the kitchen, are also played at times by some of the family members). It’s not long before we’re into an energised acro routine, played out over, under and around the table. This ensemble intro develops into a skilful acrobalance duet, with the beefiest of the men basing, standing on two boxes and a ‘washing machine’ stacked up on the table, the smaller of the two women reaching legs to the roof as she stands on his shoulders, then his head. Later, the other woman does a very lovely aerial act using the grandfather character’s discarded zimmer-frame as her ‘cradle’.
Cooking features heavily: it’s Grandad’s birthday, and there’s a cake to bake. Cue flour and juggled eggs. Well, balls but I think we are supposed to take them to be eggs. Laundry too: heaps of it on ropes dangled from and run through. An hour dashes by very easily, with moments of audience participation, lots more well-executed acrobatics, and a lovely aerial duet towards the end performed with our beefy base standing on a scaffolding tower, swinging his partner through his legs and up and over his head.
The relationship between music and physical action is always well maintained, and the show bursts with vitality and humour. It’s a rumbustious romp, and I leave happy.
Also in the Lafayette, mid afternoon, is the far darker and resolutely disturbing Dolls, by Cirk La Putyka, the renowned circus/physical company from the Czech Republic – presented in Edinburgh by Aurora Nova. I’m always a sucker for shows about dolls, these strange objects of desire that reflect our own view of ourselves. The theme has been a popular one for physical theatre companies over the years – for pretty obvious reasons, I suppose, as the it offers myriad opportunities for a play on the relationship between animate and inanimate.
The setting here seems to be in some sort of dystopian future – although the house with its front missing, dominating the space from the rear, conjures images of both World War Two and the current Syrian conflict. And yes, of course – it looks like a doll’s house. The house is lit in dull ambers and blues –straw and steel. There’s a big blast, a fizz of fluorescent electric light, and smoke fills the house. Our human dolls come tumbling out. They’re a ramshackle bunch. One is dressed in what looks like Vivienne Westwood’s Seditionaries range of black trousers and jacket with straps dangling. Others are in crumpled sportswear, crusty overcoats, ripped tights. The acrobatics are delivered in a harsh, aggressive physical language – although tempered later by gentle and lyrical moments, for example in a beautiful cloud-swing section.
Throughout, the relationship between the animate and the inanimate is investigated. A mannequin called Martha becomes an object of desire. A crudely shaped puppet becomes a punchbag. A woman mothers a baby doll, fighting over it with her partner, an opportunity for a good acrobalance duet. ‘Hello, I am your father’ he says ominously to the doll, as the happy family sit at a table in their doll’s house room. The man in black becomes a human puppet, strings tied to his ankles and wrists, pulled hither and thither by the other four performers. the term ‘hand-to-hand balancing’ takes on new meaning as a man and a woman have their arms bound together.
The action moves between the floor, the air, and the doll’s house set. Sexual politics are on the table: at times, the piece feels like a demented punk version of a Punch and Judy show. And there is a superb acro to aerial duet between a man and a woman playing dolls alternately. She has an extraordinary ability to stay stiff and lifeless, as, wrapped in clear plastic, she is hoisted on her partners shoulders like a toy he has stolen, and one painstaking movement at a time, pulled up into the air for a doubles trapeze act like no other. The tables are turned nicely as she descends, and his body then freezes up.
Be warned, although a daytime circus show, this is a disturbing and unnerving piece of work. Cirk La Putyka create a dark and dangerous stage world, and inhabit it with full commitment. Shock and awe, in equal measure.
Later in the Lafayette, the big and beefy Cirque Alfonse from Quebec present Barbu. It’s butch and brash and makes no claims to being anything other than good solid circus entertainment. The four men at the core at the action are all solidly built, and a lot of the acro action and comic play is built around this fact. The skills are sound, no doubt about that – top notch. They create human towers and pyramids galore, spin expertly in cyr wheels, juggle, and do a mean teeterboard act. There are also two women performers, who perform in the traditional circus female roles: hanging circ/hoop; being swung around by the men, on or off roller blades; or being the ‘magician’s assistant’ in a version of the classic Cabinet of Swords. The magician is a geeky type of guy who ends up being tied up and humiliated. There are screens to the side, showing close-ups of parts of the human body; or waving flowers, birds or bees. I’m not sure why. There is also a feisty live band, playing what I take to be Quebecois music which I enjoy – a kind of rousing electro-folk that at times reminds me of Irish folk-rock band Horslips. It’s all high energy and jolly good fun. Not my cup of tea for the most part as, to be honest, as I find a lot of the messages about gender divide and masculinity a wee bit disturbing – but filling a necessary slot for the up-for-it late evening crowd, who if not at the circus would be filling the cabaret, sketch comedy and stand-up shows.
Over in the smaller tent, Beauty, I see two very different shows.
Les Inouis is the new show by Total Theatre Award nominated company T1J, who are also presenting that earlier show, L’Enfant Qui at L’Institut Francais d’Ecosse. And when I say new, I mean painfully new. It feels fresh and tentative, almost to0 early in its process to review. It tells the story of a migrant washed up on shore. And how great to see circus tackling an urgent subject of the moment. It weaves the story of this nameless man, imagined by the girl who finds his dying body, with a bigger story of migration and environmentalism. Seeing his body on the beach, with a plastic bag over his head, we are immediately reminded of all the stories of wildlife killed by trash in the sea. The famous bicycles of the Calais ‘jungle’, a makeshift migrant city, are suggested by a unicyclist moving around the space at the start of th epiece, as three washed-up bodies lie on the ‘beach’ next to two carved wooden dolphin. But the image of the bicycle also suggests an environmental message of a need to abandon the pursuit of oil for cars.
As with L’Enfant Qui, this new show is far from being a regular circus piece. It merges circus skills, puppetry, animation and spoken text. The text tells a story of a border crossing with a wagon filled with caged birds. The birds can’t cross, because they don’t have the right documents. Their carer opens the cages and they fly across the border. The central puppet is a human-size figure that alternates cleverly with a real human playing the migrant on the shore. The simple but effective animation, with human interaction from behind the translucent material that form the screen, is used to tell the story – from both a human and an animal perspective – of a journey across the ocean. The movement work is sound, with some strong acrobalance sections. There is a beautiful slack wire act on which a woman gives birth to a puppet baby – it fits beautifully into the piece, suggesting the shaky vulnerability of women migrants giving birth whilst in transit. A cyr wheel act, on the other hand, is skilful but doesn’t seem to fit the narrative – always the dilemma in circus-theatre: what takes precedence, presenting the skills or telling the story? There’s a big ensemble act inside a kind of rolling metal cube. Caged wild humans or caged wild animals? It suggests both, and works very well.
Les Inouis is a show that is already interesting and thought-provoking. With the necessary time to develop, it will no doubt grow into a winning piece of cross artform circus-theatre.
Last but not least – Palestinian Circus’ B-Orders is a delight. ‘Imagine a world without borders and a life without prejudice’ is its tagline. It is created and performed by Ashtar Muallem and Fadi Zmorrod, both totally engaging onstage.
It’s political, but not in an agit-prop kind of way. Do this, do that say the words projected onto the back of the space (hard to read without the total blackout needed). Don’t talk to strangers. Think about your future. It is about the restrictions of living in occupied Palestine, yes – but it is about so much more too. Gender, for example. The shame of getting your first period. Being told to cover yourself; that acrobatics is no game for a girl. Always cast as the victim. Being a boy who is assumed to be causing trouble, defying authority. Always cast as the aggressor.
The pair use dance, acrobatics, Chinese Pole and silks in the telling of their story of the desire to break free of the boundaries of nationality, gender, religion. And object animation and manipulation: each has a pile of bricks that are used to build walls, and houses, and human figures; to throw and kick; and to use as stepping stones to walk over to each other. Their onstage relationship is beautiful, poignant. They are all things to each other: sibling, friend, alter-ego, lover. Sometimes, she is on silks and he is on the Chinese Pole. Then they duet on the pole, a series of soft and melifluous moves. Poetry in motion!
Also at Circus Hub are a couple of Total Theatre favourites. Ockham’s Razor are here, as are last year’s Total Theatre Award for Circus, Barely Methodical with Bromance. Not seen yet, but hopefully caught later in the run, Are two shows that come recommended from those in the know in the new circus milieu: Elephant in the Room, and La Meute. There’s also a children’s circus show called Trash Test Dummies, and Limbo! a good-time spectacle returning to the Edinburgh Fringe for another, no doubt successful, run.
So take your pick, and roll up, roll up to the Circus Hub.
Featured image: Palestinan Circus: B-Orders
The Underbelly’s Circus Hub is at The Meadows, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2015, throughout August. www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk
For Dolls and B-Orders, also see www.auroranova.org