Circus 1903 wants to bring the golden age of the big-top thrills and spills to modern-day audiences. It largely succeeds. The sight of platforms, high wires and primary-coloured scenic circus tents bathed in hazy light accompanied by a cacophony of noise gets the blood pumping. And only a grinch would fail to grin at as dazzling and dashing The Great Gaston (Francois Borie) juggles his batons, contortionist The Elastic Disolocationist (Senayet Asefa Amare) boggles the mind with her phenomenal bendiness and aerial artist Lucky Moon (Aleksandra Keidrowicz) does some elegant gravity-defying. So far, so circus.
But this show’s marketing makes much of the fact that its era-authentic show replaces real elephant with human-puppet hybrids made by the creators of Warhorse’s world-famous equines. Fair enough, I hear you say. You can’t make like its 1903 with a live elephant on the Royal Festival Hall stage in 2018. But you’d also be within your right to feel a bit shortchanged by this ultimately underwhelming exchange. A big elephant and baby elephant trundle on around the halfway mark, do very little and amble off again. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if they exist purely for the marketing opportunity they afford.
It’s one of several moments that suck impetus out of the evening. Today’s information-saturated, over-stimulated audiences need a little more than ball-spinning and what’s essentially some BMXing. The latter also highlights an interesting inconsistency in the show’s approach: period authenticity is retained in some areas and disregarded in others. Live animals are shown the door, and a thoroughly anachronistic bike is ushered in. Hey, it’s a night at the circus, whatever. Let’s not get too fussy.
What is frustrating about this liberal approach to authenticity is that it hasn’t been extended to the show’s gender politics, which don’t seem to have been given more than a cursory once-over. Aside from a few jokes that stray dangerously near the-PC-brigade-are-ruining-our-fun territory, Circus 1903 doesn’t attempt to critique or update traditional roles. The men are strong, charismatic and in control, while the women are mute, alluring and scantily clad – and always the ones in peril. There’s no room in my life for burly blindfolded men throwing knives at a pretty, pouting ladies.
Sticking to a traditional performance structure of ringmaster-introduced isolated acts, it’s a slight relief that Circus 1903 avoids the temptation to tack on an awkward meta-narrative. But, when it comes to knife-throwing, some more-sophisticated commentary on such incongruities would help matters along. Over the full two hours and 20 minutes, its episodic style makes keeping the energy up and the audience engaged a challenge, especially when the quality dips. That the ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson) largely achieves this is one of the evening’s most extraordinary feats. From chucking popcorn to charming skits with excessively cute, charismatic kids and a spring-loaded soft toy, he keeps the audience eating out of the palm of his hands. Simple card tricks and balloon animals, which afford some much-needed human interaction and warmth on stage, are the most delightful parts of the evening. Just don’t tell the puppeteers.
Circus 1903 is on at the Southbank Centre until 5th January. More info here.