Edinburgh Fringe 2014
The Companhia Do Mue Tio presents “My Uncle’s Shoes”, the sweet and sensitive story of a clown and his assistant. The ageing older clown is ailing and wants to pass his treasured clowning skills on before it’s too late. Directed by Joao Lima, the comedic drama centres around the two men as they prepare for each performance, practise their circus skills and create a relationship of deep respect for the art of clowning, and for each other.
A burly young clown’s assistant sits in front of a large barrow eating bananas and throwing the skins across the floor. He hears distant applause and gets ready as the clown skates in on roller boots from the wings. Weary from the performance, the clown cleans his face of his make-up and looks around exasperated at all his assistant has done wrong.
He scolds him and sends him out to drum up interest for the next performance with sandwich boards. The assistant removes the clown’s boots and as the clown refreshes himself with coffee, the assistant tries the boots on for size. The clown chases him around the stage and they prepare for the next show. The clown reapplies the make-up he so carefully removed and begins the next performance. On his return from these many performances he practises slap stick and clowning routines with the assistant – who struggles to get the timing and actions right.
The clown’s frustration at his assistant’s lack of grace is obvious but he is also clearly unwell and some of his own performances aren’t always gratefully received. Eventually the clown feels that the assistant is ready and they perform their double act for the first time. This piece is a lesson in physical theatre and clowning skill. The moment we see the two men on stage together their roles are clear – master and apprentice dealing with the reality of their backstage poverty. The older clown hides his hacking terminal cough from his prodigy whilst the younger man dreams of filling the older clown’s shoes. They create a meticulous rhythm of preparation for each performance with the clown re applying his stage make-up and the assistant tying the enormous and cumbersome shoes that are essential to the clown costume. The two men perform mostly in silence with the occasional grunt and gesture. They are at their best when the assistant is trying to learn the older man’s tricks, but careers around falling over or spraying water everywhere. The incidental music, written by Jarbas Bittencourt, appears so infrequently that each arrival is spellbinding. A mournful clarinet, accompanied by guitar, waltz together as the clowns synchronised slapstick breathes in mutual time.
Their main prop, a fantastically versatile and oversized cart that they are able to move around the stage perimeter at speed, also contains many hidden treasures. They continually surprise the audience by bringing out giant collapsible props, creating an instant backdrop, pulling out stilts, oversize shoes and then using it as a place to sleep. They take a long time to get to the point when the two men are able to perform together, the piece is 1 hour and 15 minutes long and I would have liked to see even more of their clowning ability. It’s obvious from the way they take possession of the stage that we are watching to skilled acrobats who are capable of extreme agility.
The day I am there the audience is mostly adults who can appreciate the slow developing relationship between the two performers. However, the one small child present is also amply rewarded when their clowning skill together reaches its crescendo as they perform to the familiar oompah soundtrack. It’s a truly beautiful performance though, watching it almost felt like a guilty pleasure or stolen moment. I adored it so much. If you are a fan of Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin, or Harold Lloyd then you are in for a real treat.