I was drinking coffee in Elena’s kitchen when she popped out out of the room for a minute and returned with an earthenware bowl. My friend had bought the item from a craft store in Odawara, Japan, and was swept away by its imperfect, organic beauty – the way the soft colours blended into each other, and the uneven waves of its rim. “It was expensive,” she confessed. “But isn’t it the most beautiful thing?”.
Like Elena’s bowl, Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo comes with a price tag. If you like your circus served up with a dedicated champagne waiter and canapes, you can spend up to £345 on a ringside seat at this event; otherwise, £122.50 will get you one of the best tickets in the house with just enough change for a bottle of Old Speckled Hen. But despite its wealth of technical expertise and innovation, and the employment of some of the most capable, graceful and strong bodies I’ve ever seen, Ovo, as a sum of parts, is far from beautiful. The production sanitises individuality under a hyperactive primary-coloured tale that has as much emotional nuance as your average CBeebies show. And unfortunately, unlike Elena’s bowl, this piece bears no thumbprints.
Portuguese speakers and Latin enthusiasts will already have concluded that this show’s name translates as ‘egg’ – but the relevance of this particular symbol to the show is, I daresay, a little scrambled. When we enter, a giant bird’s egg dominates the stage; later, a clown dressed as a fly carries an smaller version on his back; later still, the same buzzing clown makes a lacklustre joke about being kicked in the ovos, accompanied by cowbell sound effects. For the most part, though, this is a show about insects. About how, though they are small, they apparently live and love in a life as large as yours or mine.
Ovo is episodic, with the only connecting factor being the aforementioned fly’s tenacious pursuit of a ladybird, in a narrative line as flaccid and flimsy as a silkworm’s thread. The clowning insect, bearing the same level of seductive charm as a persistent bug after a juicy slice of cake, could get you wondering if there’s a line of Raid for this particular type of sex pest. It won’t be coming from the show’s Writer/Choreographer/Director, Deborah Colker, though, who draws attention to our Ladybug’s bra size by sounding heavy drum beats as she adjusts her bra. There’s a pinch of carry on comedy in these heavy-handed comic book sound effects, and our Lady is left to respond by hitting her pursuer with a giant strawberry (how quaint and girly!), while he engages in a little novelty kink action with a fly swatter.
The less contrived circus acts are remarkable in isolation, but bring little fulfilment. A hand-balancing winged gymnast displays the kind of poise and grace that goes some way to explaining why my mum squeals a little bit when she sees a real dragonfly in the wild. A pair of butterflies (ever the romantic ones!) glide in a Spanish web, coasting across the space like high-school sweethearts.
It is at such moments that you can see why the world beneath the glass blades felt so right for a run at the circus – both are, after all, worlds unencumbered by the clumsiness of ordinary mammals and dull old gravity. And, throughout Ovo, the cast brings a honeyed laziness to this miniature world; crickets sway playfully on giant sticks, while other bugs lounge in corners in a mood of happy cohabitation, taking in the action around them with a sweet, lethargic energy. Liz Vandal’s costume design, paired with Julie Bégin’s makeup, is ripe in spirited imagination, making a fine match for Colker’s visual vocabulary of mini-beast movement. When he breaks from the “whoosh!’s and the “boing!”s, Jonathan Deans’ use of realist sound design has you reaching for the citronella.
That said, Ovo, for all its boundless expertise, feels more like a feat of great engineering and technical prowess than of entertainment – and watching it seems like viewing elite sport robbed of its dynamism of chance and competition. The electric guitars may be aggressive as ten scarabs brave the flying trapeze, but you’re either good at this, or you’re kaput – rendering this suspension sans suspense.
And, as my dear Elena taught me, too much perfection is just all too dull.
Ovo is on until 4 March 2018 at the Royal Albert Hall. Click here for more details.