Review from: Ffwrnes, Llanelli; 27th July 2018
Over the stage at Ffwrnes, some strange gravitational anomaly has twisted trusses and left circus props and set elements suspended in the air. Even the stripes on the red and white fabric below have been shocked into disarray. A music-box melody from composer Quinta gives the pre-show set-up an air of whimsical darkness that makes me think of Edward Scissorhands, and glimmers of sparkle and shine peek out amid the aerial debris of wheels, rungs, robes and rings.
The Exploded Circus is the first explicitly indoor production from all-female acrobatics troupe Mimbre, who have established themselves as a staple of the UK outdoor arts scene since 1999. We arrive to find the calm after the storm, as the remaining members of a travelling show try to deal with the disarray they find themselves in. The aesthetic is firmly rooted in glories of nostalgic vintage circus romance, feathered plumes and red velvet, but the spectacle unravels at an opiate pace that sets it apart from the excitement and thrills of a traditional big top. There is a perplexing air of mystery to the show, compounded by contradictions that leave me puzzling.
A fourth wall fades in and out; sometimes we are a present audience in their world – prompting moments of bold showmanship for our entertainment – at others we are forgotten or ignored as the cast of six busy themselves about the complex set, with tasks whose purpose seems unfathomable. The detail of designer Loren Elstein‘s intricate environment is beautiful and a fleeting section, highlighting its various parts with a handheld torch, leaves me wanting more time to focus on these distinct visual qualities. There’s a lot going on, and I wonder if the hazy distance, where a lot of out-of-focus activity takes place at the back of the stage, would have had more clarity if I’d seen it all set within the ring of a real tent (where the show can also be presented).
As the cast begin to emerge from where they had been obscured amongst the scattered circus shards, calls of ‘Dimitri?’, ‘Diego?’, ‘Sascha?’ suggest the men have all vanished in the same strange event that has frozen the show in the midst of an explosive moment. The characters we are left with are a prim aerialist (Rebecca Rennison), a stately showgirl (Farrell Cox), a youthful human cannonball who interjects the mostly wordless proceedings with a range of excitedly optimistic shouts of ‘Bang!’ (Coral Dawson), a jaded ticket seller – who, judging by the later addresses as ‘Madame’, may also be the proprietor or proprietor’s wife – (Alice Allart), a shy juggler (Lynn Scott), and an indefatigable clown who takes it upon herself to gee the others into action (Arielle Lauzon).
Lauzon is an excellent performer, connecting with the audience as a her clown character, whilst also executing feats of acrobatics, hoop diving, basing, slackline and trick cycling. Her energy powers the show through an otherwise ambling aimlessness (and prompts delighted laughs from children in the front row at her slapstick and pratfalls). There is an oddly disjointed feminism at work here – on the one hand, these accomplished circus artists are all exceptionally strong and capable women; on the other, they are playing characters who seem lost and purposeless without their menfolk and standard routine.
The Exploded Circus is a world of gorgeous production values padding out some solid circus skills. It’s not the world the poster suggests (it’s not just me – on my way out of the theatre, a group of women are taking selfies with the poster board, and I overhear: ‘What we just saw didn’t look anything like this!’), but it is an intriguing one, if frustrating at times with its pottering, enigmatic progress.
As the cast make their final escape, another puzzle remains in the twinkling letters hanging at the back of the stage. What I thought would spell out ‘circus’ has been revealed as something much darker instead.