Saturday, 11 August 2012

Circus in Hand - Assembly Roxy

If I struggled a bit with the sheer alien-ness of an angular avant-garde show for Russian children, then I found Circus in Hand strange for a whole other bunch of cross-cultural reasons.

The show is basically a puppet circus. But nearly all the puppets are conjured before our very eyes from rectangles of stretchy fabric. Except the one that's a colourful stripy sock with a red nose.

If nothing else, you've got to admire the skill involved here. And the inventiveness too, for a good while. Although after a bit once the formulas deployed have been established there are only a few new variations introduced. Or rather you quickly get used to the skill and the shtick. After that you're left with the curious prospect on another half an hour of a pretty much the entire repertoire of a circus being run through by stringy homunculi.

As I tend to avoid real circuses and their trendy modern successors like the plague, CiH was most interesting as reminder of what circuses are actually like and what they're up to. What struck me most forcibly – and I have no idea whether this is an even faintly useful thought – is how much of circus is a kind of de-poshed Olympic gymnastics. At least, the bits that don't involve wild animals. (I did also occur to me that Olympic lion-taming would be brilliant, but that definitely isn't a helpful thought.)

So far, so not-really-alien-at-all. I suppose the thing I found difficult was the lack of “knowingness”. Sure, yes; I'm a snobby, lefty, postmodernist Guardianista, and I can't cope with people using eighties power-balladry or UV lights unless I'm absolutely certain they're being “ironic”, but more than that was the apparently uninterrogated use of 50s “Exotica”, being backed up by performances that seemed to totally buy into it.

Yes, I realise I'm now writing a review where I worry about the politics of some dancing hankies, but there's more. Later, there's a burlesque! Have you ever watched a tarty tissue shake its (worryingly impressive) booty before? Again, an odd choice of thing to show children, but there it is.

However, while there's a base level that's slightly tawdry and at times worryingly unreconstructed, I did find myself smiling at some of the whimsy and unexpectedness – including a a spangly muslin trapeze-artiste and a grand finale of a UV Grace Jones hula-hoop number made from stretchy coloured ribbons.

Re: my ongoing thesis that all Russian shows are underpinned by an unreal sense of misery – well, the show was mostly number-to-number with barely a break for applause, but sometimes there would be breaks during which they played that stock sound of whistling wind always used to suggest tumbleweed and wastelands. Why? I have no idea. Because they're Russians and because behind the circus, all is still bleakness, vodka and death? Possibly.

Does any of this constitute a recommendation or otherwise? I'm not sure I could say with any certainty.


Paul said...

I think the Russian shows (or at least the ones presented as part of the Russian Season at Assembly Roxy) are fairly into concepts of honesty and truthfulness and the like - they rarely conjure up new realities but play with the elements in front of them (AKHE's Mr. Carmen is simply two guys interacting with props and mechanisms, and I think their ideas of performance and theatre have heavily influenced some of the other companies). This is why I think Circus in Hand and Petya & the Wolf end up presenting stuff normally stripped from children's shows - like the sexy dancer puppet in CiH or the death scenes in P&tW. To exclude them it would be weird, false, compromise the truthfulness of the other material - and as you said before, it's not as if the children seeing it are particularly horrified or scarred.

Does that make any sense?

Paul said...

Also, forgot to add: I think a lot of Russian misery in art is accompanied by wild and ecstatic joy/drunkenness/partying that goes on too. Either one gets pretty boring without the other.