Birmingham REP; 19th March 2015
With the shrill note of a traditional circus whistle, the piped nostalgia of calliope refrains that accompanies us while we take our seats is swiftly replaced by pounding beats of tribal dance music, and we’re launched into the thrilling fantasy of Cirque Berserk. This is not circus-theatre, or dance-circus, but pure circus spectacle re-imagined for theatre venues. We are about to be swept up in the heat and pace of non-stop live performance that pushes the capacity of the human body way beyond its normal limits, and does so with a stylish gleam.
Whilst no narrative is expressly presented, the futuristic bare metal of the set combined with feathered costumes and Victoriana tweed waistcoats conjures a steampunk pirate shipwreck, and a show populated by the inhabitants of this wild isle where society and raw nature now meet.
Cirque Berserk is produced by Martin Burton, who also runs the long established tenting outfit Zippos. Many of the acts are engaged by both productions (Berserk runs through the winter months and Zippos launches for the summer season at the end of March). Nevertheless, their incarnations are markedly different each time and I’m surprised by how, despite seeing many of these acts last year, I am still kept on the edge of my seat with no idea what will happen next.
The show opens with the dreadlocked Timbuktu Tumblers bounding onstage, leaping and rolling into a sequence of towers constructed from the bodies of the seven men. The tidily dressed troupe, appearing as watchers seated on the skewed banks of steel-mesh decking that make up the set, and springing to life as they flick-flak and somersault across the stage between numbers, are our smiling bridge into the untamed world that unfolds around them.
An illuminated ‘CIRCUS’ sign, in the embellished font of red and gold that traditionally denotes this kind of entertainment, descends in front of the steel globe at the back of the set, and the grand opening is complete. Germaine Delbosq and husband Luciano Gabriel Carmona drum up the excitement with their whirling percussive bolas and triumphant shouts, all shining eyes, swirling curls and glittering smiles. ‘Thank you amigos! And welcome to the party!’
Another sweep from the Timbuktu Tumblers with a comic payoff leads into the nifty fiddle track that we soon come to recognise as clown Tweedy‘s signature tune for the evening. Despite the proscenium arch setting, there is no fourth wall here, and the charmingly gormless Tweedy gently draws us further into the Berserk world before picking up the pace with his fast and foolish slapstick and balancing mishaps. His indomitably optimistic spirit in the face of dropped hats, broken set and collapsing ladders makes him as endearing as he is funny, and our laughter is a warm and appreciative release of tension.
The drama returns when Jackie Armstrong swings from the wings already airborne on her aerial straps, which unfold during her act into a set of slings. With the red and blue lighting reflecting from her black and silver sequinned costume, she builds from elegant postures into foot hangs and a neck spin finale that has me gasping for breath as she opens out into a star.
French hand-to-hand team Duo Benelo (Benjamin and Elodie) appear in costumes that evoke the ballet Swan Lake, with Elodie’s classical tutu’d ballerina held aloft and twisted by an untamed native Benjamin. They present an excellent dynamic act with a proud and passionate tango attitude to their constantly shifting poses as Benjamin rotates upon the ground, rising and falling while Elodie maintains single point balances stretched out above him, ending head to head.
As one act disappears the next is already dragging our attention, and three burlesque-styled butterflies capture our focus while the Tropicana Troupe set their teeterboard, as if warriors preparing for a hunt in warpaint and feathered headgear. High flying somersaults and layouts are launched across the stage, before the dancing girls return us to civilisation and another smart comedy routine from Tweedy.
This civilisation takes one further step into the future as a giant stilt walking robot appears to a classically inspired soundtrack of pounding footsteps, blasting pyrotechnics from the ends of its arms. Then, as the smell of gunpowder drifts over us, it is overtaken by the roar of motorbike engines and petrol fumes as the steel Globe Of Terror rolls forward. Two stunt-riders from the Lucius Team whizz around the inside of the two and a half metre tall sphere, utilising the G-force to propel them up, over and around, crossing each other in nail-biting synchronised timing.
This act has been slightly adapted for theatre spaces, as the height does not allow the cage to open up as it would under canvas and, during the interval, I ask director Julius Green how he has found the experience of working with a circus troupe. Usually a producer in the West End, Green has been a circus fan all his life, and has a long-standing friendship with proprietor Burton. The pair have talked about a collaboration for years, and Cirque Berserk was the project to make it happen. He has thoroughly enjoyed working with this new brand of performer, who bring a special type of connection and integrity; ‘Circus artists live and breathe their work.’
The whole team are credited in the glossy programme, from the drivers to the baby-sitters, tech teams to front-of-house merchandising crew. While extending the circus experience to traditionally theatre-going audiences, the Berserk team are committed to their roots of popular entertainment, in the original inclusive sense of the word. They are, perhaps, proving to a generation of 18-25 year olds that circus is not just ‘for kids’, as mainstream culture would often try to have us believe. The young man seated next to me is awed, he’s never been to a circus before, and had no idea what to expect.
Cirque Berserk builds in intensity as the costumes and make-up move towards wilder and wilder versions of unbridled humanity, and Matthew Bugg‘s driving sound design leads us through repeating themes, like a movie soundtrack keeping us in touch with its disparate threads until the various performers come together in ritual and celebration during the second half.
The curtain reopens to an owl-like figure rising up from the stage on an aerial hoop to overlook the Timbuktu Tumblers’ ecstatic limbo routine amid flowers, flame, and the ever present beat of nature. When the bar is lowered to the height of two beer bottles I expected some kind of cheat, but the dancer passes through without his butt touching the floor once.
I suddenly spy a dragon as the stage is filled with bellydancers, and Germaine and Luciano reappear with their bolas’ alight for another sensational display. Toni Novotny whips the ensemble into shape, dressed in a ringmaster’s costume straight from a historical romance, and the stage is quickly set for Germaine’s superb foot juggling. She flips and spins silver balls, rings, a spinning cylinder – and finally a flaming cross – between her feet and hands, and the speed at which she executes the intricate feats of co-ordination is remarkable.
A stack of chairs is built while Billy juggles five balls for us at the front of the stage, and as the space clears we see Zula Jalbaa all ready to demonstrate his hand balance at the top of the tower. Another flurry of activity produces a white draped object that reveals contortionist Odka inside a glass jar, and the room stills as we watch her unfold herself and proceed to fire arrows across the stage with a bow held between her feet.
The party is really warmed up now, and Toni cracks his whip extinguishing candles, then hurls knives and axes towards the board where his wife Nicol stands smiling, flicking her head from side to side. I cringe with every throw, but not a hair on her head is harmed.
As the miniature vardo that marked this strange village festival is rolled off stage, Tweedy enters on a unique and rickety tandem, out of the loop as always. Enlisting help from the audience his contraption transforms into a version of the giraffe unicycle, and he presents his own variant of a knife act.
Hand-stand artist Kremena Dimitrova is up next, and hits her balances quickly and neatly with an effortless looking oversplit on the two poles set for her. On a single pole she rotates and, from the second row of the stalls I think, not for the first time, of how the impact of the acts is heightened by seeing them on a stage above me instead of below. She adds velvet blocks to the two poles to build their height, then tosses one after another into a witty crystal encrusted fishing net that matches the fabric of her own costume.
When two aerial hoops are raised at either side of the stage, and a 4-ring hoop diving structure foregrounds the imposing figure of the steel globe at the back, the circular motifs remind me again of the duality of order and disorder that lies at the root of all circus and is highlighted in this production. The Timbuktu Tumblers enliven the stage with their continuous movement and acrobatics, and then the robot returns, leading a motley procession that crosses ceremoniously from one side of the stage to the other.
The Tropicana Troupe present the next phase of their teeterboard prowess, with one member launched onto a padded chair perch. The programme for the show is proud to announce that this is the only act of the evening that is supported by a safety wire and, after the tragic death in Blackpool six years ago following a failed attempt on this stunt, I can well understand its value.
The jubilant parade return having overcome the dragon, and once again it is Tweedy left behind on his own. Incorporating themes we’ve already come to love from his previous appearances (the dropped hat, the troublesome ladder, the nose-picking…) he manages to rig a washing line slack-rope (and, of course, he remembers his safety line too). In spite of his pace, all the thought processes that mark his idiosyncratic actions are clear, and I can see how Tweedy has developed a reputation for being at the top of his game.
Just as we think it’s all over, the Globe of Terror begins to move forward again, and we are reminded of our 21st Century reality by the Lucius Troupe motorbikers, who contrast with the green-spangled and feathered jungle queen who stands at the centre of the globe while they perform their revolutions around her. Now she is replaced by a third biker, and then a fourth until they all circle the metal ball together. At a sudden blackout, they are illuminated only by the lights fixed to their bikes and visors. This is the first time I’ve seen an act of this kind, and I find their proximity and timing in such a small space extraordinary.
Cirque Berserk is an exceptional show. A very high quality production indeed, with fantastic design from Dianne Kelly (costumes) and Sean Cavanagh (set). The more I think on it the richer it becomes, and I look forward to seeing future evolutions.
The farewell bows are played out over a return to the Victorian circus music that welcomed us and, as the bold banner is lowered once more, the audience are reminded that this is what they’ve come to see: CIRCUS!