Brighton Festival 2014
“There has been a slight incident backstage,” we are told. It is the first of many slight incidents, the hazards escalating and the laughs accumulating as the evening progresses. We are at a circus where everything can go wrong, and most things do. And never before has so much going wrong seemed so right.
Flown has just blown me away. There is a rawness and honesty to this performance that can scarce be encapsulated in prose, but I shall endeavour.
Circus is dangerous. We are told this repeatedly – the performers recount touching, funny, doubtless entirely true stories of injuries they and friends have sustained; the front two rows are under strictest instructions not to stand up for the duration (I am in row five – I should be safe, right?); the precariousness inherent in the very act of circus is made crystal clear at every turn. We also see the danger with our own eyes, everywhere about us, dangling from every carabina.
Circus is immediate. You are eyeball-to-eyeball with your designated entertainers for the evening – what is theirs is ours. (Wrong; I am not safe: early on, I and the young boy next to me get pushed quite hard by an actor making his way down the aisle behind, and the boy is briefly in need of consolation from his mother, but is pretty soon enjoying the show almost as much as me.)
Circus can be oh so tender at times, and oh so mesmerising: the flex of the human muscle as it stretches itself to its limit and the delicate interplay of bodies through space can evoke the gamut of emotion. Music can play a big part in this. The music here is exceptionally diverse – we’re served rock, blues, soul, ambient soundscapes, ditties and rhythms on accordion, saxophone, loop pedal, several guitars, and a rich sea of voices. The barrier between musician and circus performer is as permeable as that between actor and audience: at one stand-out point the entire ensemble of ten simply sits down and plays us a song, and before the evening is out even the rhythm section has flown.
When such a strong female clown stands so rootedly to the show’s centre, circus can also be extremely funny. Gloria is a riot. Her timing is superb, and her frowns a delight. This evening, she has certain sections of the audience so continually convulsed in laughter that everyone else laughs at the laughers, the laughers laugh back, ad infinitum, and Gloria can just stand back and let us do her work for her. Which of course redoubles the effect. Gloria also knows her tricks, very impressive tricks, and even better, she can clown them up a treat.
It is a harder task for circus to make sense, in the narrative way that theatre can make sense, and circus these days is on a steady path towards a closer affinity with theatre – circus is, you could say, on a quest for its sense. Flown, I am delighted to report, makes sense. The show has a beautifully conceived show-within-a-show structure, where we see the extraordinary acts but we also see the commotion that surrounds them – the backstage snogs, the technicians dangling from the rafters, the bitter recriminations and personal crises. Once again, we have a permeable barrier – on- and off-stage are one and the same.
Flown is a show of many circles. Circles are ever-present in the set design, and more circles are continually brought on and used for tricks. The word “circle” comes from the Latin word “circus”, meaning ring, so there is hardly a more apt shape for a circus show. Circuses used to be round themselves, and traditional circuses, of course, still are; increasingly, circuses are end-on, and inhabit squarer theatrical spaces. This company seems to recognise that at heart, circus is still all about the circle. The circle is, after all, the most inclusive of the shapes, symbolising unity and harmony. The cast of Flown are at one with us, baring their personal stories through the glorious convention of transitional monologues, making it plain that any one of us could, if we wanted, be up there doing what they are doing. For younger members of the audience, this is surely a wonderful inspirational message, rendered all the more tangible by the constant reminders of the downsides – the long hours, the difficulties of touring as a single parent, and, again, the danger.
I will often sit watching a piece of performance and begin asking myself questions – what’s going on exactly? what’s that thing up there for? why have they selected that lighting state? isn’t theatre a strange phenomenon, me down here and them up there? The very best type of performance – and Flown is the very best type of performance – flows so smoothly along on its well-oiled wheels that the questions just don’t need posing. We are along for the ride, simple as that, and we come away feeling incredibly uplifted, awed, and even a little educated.
The most striking aspect of the show is the sheer joy that the ensemble bring to the work they do. I overhear a cast member afterwards telling a friend the technical rehearsal lasted until 4:30, and they then had to cram in a dress rehearsal before the 7:30 show. The exhaustion they must have been subject to makes the light-hearted gleeful touch they each bring to the performance all the more extraordinary. Clearly, everyone on that stage adores the circus, adores performing before an audience, and adores their fellow performers. Add to the mix a truly top-notch set of skills, and ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we have ourselves a winner.