Just a few short minutes separate the end of one Edinburgh fringe show from the beginning of the next on the line-up, a frenzied scene-change that makes for battered floors and makeshift scenery. The fringe nurtures (or necessitates) its own aesthetic, one which makes you re-attune your eyes to focus on the performers sweating metres from your face, to embrace ramshackle details and prize authenticity. So at first, the sumptuousness of Batacchio feels a little overwhelming. It’s a Czech circus show by Cirk La Putyka that takes its inspiration from the maximalist-chic world of Victorian theatre. And although each performer is separately compelling, its huge, densely-patterned silk curtain is a character in its own right, too ready to rumple coquettishly, to conceal and reveal, by carefully calculated increments, the bodies behind. It directs your gaze, perfectly framing a performer’s immaculately muscled back as he performs a punishing rings routine.
The same play of tease and reveal shapes the acts this curtain frames. Contemporary circus has worked hard to strip away the layers of mystique, camp, and kitsch that have accumulated through circus’s history. Groups like Circa perform in ordinary workout gear, visibly tired and sweaty, and offering emotive insights into the real life of a physically and mentally close-knit troupe. The focus is on the feats. This is something different, knowingly playing with circus’s mystery and sexual energy.
And what’s incredibly about Batacchio is how it strips back and rehabilitates centuries-old forms of entertainment, making them feel raw, fresh and new. A ventriloquism act becomes horrific when the gurning traditional end-of-the-pier dummy is replaced by human puppets, brought to life with a disconcertingly-placed fist. A magnificently costumed diva sings in a mangled slough of languages, the odd English phrase that emerges pointing to some sinister, hidden meaning. A seesaw act propels performers into the invisible realm above the curtain’s upper edge, sending down a delicate flock of white feathers.
This is circus as Angela Carter imagined it, a carnival-esque place of magic that can only rest on deep cruelty. This cruel darkness looms, and gathers in the show’s closing scenes. Dressed in layers of sepulchral black lace, the performers writhe and struggle in a giant web of ropes. They’re symbolically trapped in the world of the performance, which for all its knowingness and irony is still a terrifying one.
I left with a new understanding of why ideas of ‘running away with the circus’ patterns through 19th century fiction. Magical, seductive, and hovering between fiction and reality, this is a world I could live in for much, much longer than an hour.
Batacchio is on at ZOO until August 12th. Book tickets here.