Brighton Festival 2014
Five highly skilled acrobats and jugglers, some scaffolding, some ropes, a chair, a spiral-shell-type-thing, a rather surprising choice of underwear, and a tumultuous live soundtrack. And somewhere beneath it all, I think, some sort of storyline dying to break out…
The Dome is an incredible edifice, which I remember as a museum and library, and long before that of course was a Prince’s stable, and where in 1987 I wore ill-fitting tights for the Brighton Gang Show. Anyway; tonight it is abuzz, on the pavement, in the bar, especially in the great cavernous concert hall. For tonight it is home to a Belgian contemporary circus company called Feria Musica, and there is a general feeling that we’re about to witness something pretty spectacular.
After a long, tense black-out, various lights begin flickering, revealing aspects of a sky-high skeletal structure bedecked with slumped human forms and festooned with ropes. A likeable, clumsy character enters and begins tentatively exploring this structure…is it a tree?, and knocks the bodies off their perches in turn. They come to life – there are hints of spider and monkey and slug. The newly-awoken creatures treat our hero (we presume, for the moment, that he’s our hero), their surrounds and the tower that was their birthplace with a fair degree of disrespect all round, sabotaging each other’s games whether in joyous abandon or distrust and fear.
Suddenly most of them are standing on the ground and I realise I must have completely missed the moment when they first discovered it. Judging by the attention to detail so far, it was probably a momentous occasion. Perhaps I’ve been writing too many notes. Perhaps I should just sit back and watch for a while…
I am absorbed by the music. Let me describe, briefly, the musicians. Slap bang at the back of the stage stands Olivier Hestin thrashing out synchopated rhythms and pulses on his recycled (it says here) percussion. Near my corner, downstage right, sits Marc Anthony, and I have to say, I am quite partial to a bit of electroacoustic hury-gurdy, oh yes. And what is that little tinkling spinny thing you’ve got? That’s well cool. As a pair, they drive or push or caress the action forward. I briefly consider whether they should be louder. Or sitting closer together.
Suddenly the audience applaud. I didn’t see what it was exactly but the standard of what’s going on here is pretty high, and I’m very pleased we’ve had our first applause of the evening; a tension has broken; it’s okay to applaud now. Is circus/theatre cross-over of this sort caught in a bit of a no-man’s-land on the demand-and desire-for-audience-appreciation front, I wonder? What part, I also wonder, am I, the audience member, playing in this scenario? Am I here in this world with you or aren’t I?
Suddenly I, along with everyone else in the room, inhale sharply as a death-defying drop is effected. This long-haired acrobat really is good. Later he does a wonderful topsy-turvy clown-trying-to-right-himself routine that genuinely makes me start to ponder larger themes of what really is up and down, and what gives us the right to say which is which?
A giant spiral is wheeled out. Is it a shell? It serves as one, chiefly for the majestic juggler fellow (to whom we shall return anon), but boy do you need to watch your fingers if you wanna go rolling around in one of those contraptions.
There is a performer who plays a species of rag doll, oft manipulated by other performers. He and the pole guy are my favourites.
Oooh, no no, lady way up there, please don’t lean back on your chair quite that f…thank you. I was worried for a second. The lady is muttering. She is no longer rocking back dangerously, now she’s clambering all over said chair. The lady’s legs are long, and wow, I’m getting some pretty good views of them from this angle. When she’s finally extricated herself from her weird pseudo-sexual encounter with the chair, and returned to the ground, she understandably wants to sit down. On a chair, of course. One of her male co-performers plays a brief game of trying to pull the chair out from underneath her, but she doesn’t seem to want to play. She’s fed up of chairs, and she’s not the only one. My attention drifts elsewhere.
There are mahoosive projections on the back wall. Sometimes of blobs, sometimes of journeys through landscapes; presumably there’s a thinking behind which projection goes with which bit, but I guess it’s good that they don’t draw too much attention to themselves. I like the way the performers’ shadows occasionally interplay with the projections, and wonder if more could be made of this.
Suddenly, the four men begin to remove their clothing. I didn’t see who did it first, but now they’re all at it. Our “hero” from way back when (I’m sorry but I’ve completely lost track of what’s been happening to him meanwhile) is stripping up there on that precarious plank, and now the juggler guy is…okay, that’s interesting…oh that’s what you’ve been wearing under there all along…ah, so you’re going to juggle with your hand through your…I realise that my brow is thoroughly furrowed and have to look around me at other people’s faces. Yup, there are a lot of people not entirely sure whether it’s best to be watching this. Oh you’re going to do it upside down now? I am afforded another extraordinary view from this angle, one that I fear will be returning to me in my sleep tonight. I must just say, this guy’s contact juggling routine earlier in the piece was absolutely second to none, top drawer stuff, extraordinary, and I know because I do some contact juggling myself. This bit, though, I am far less sure about, especially approaching the climax of the show…well, at the end of the day you have to defend your artistic choices, and you, sir, you are defending this choice to the hilt.
Throughout, the scaffold structure has stood watch over all that has befallen. The five friends (for, it seems, through a process of baring their skin, they have finally become friends) now join together to turn this towering totem into their ultimate mobile plaything. Only the musicians remain in place – why do they have to stay so static? And why, when each of the performers has been given a moment to shine, a chance to show off their skill, has a similar light not been shone on the musicians, whose skill is no doubt just as great?
The show’s final image is a tremendous ensemble snapshot of balance, strength and calm. Whatever exactly it is that we’ve learned from our journey, I’m pretty sure it’s a positive message. There is healthy applause. A couple of people even stand to applaud. We walk away amused, bemused and exhausted.
At home, I read over the programme blurb, and realise that the creatures in the tree aren’t actually separate living beings at all: they are aspects of our hero’s identity. Although I can understand this intellectually, and even remember parts of the show where the company were presumably trying to bring this across, it doesn’t particularly help me in understanding the piece, and I feel a bit stupid that I didn’t figure it out for myself. And if there’s one thing theatre should avoid, it’s making its audience feel stupid.
There are incredible feats of dexterity on show here. There is great live music and an impressive, inventive set. All the raw ingredients are present. But the binding is missing. Whether that binding is a clearer narrative arc, or a more explicit lack of a narrative arc, or just a greater coherence of style and tightness of transitions, the end result is much like the tree stage left – robust, yet hollow.