Festival Circolo, Netherlands; 30th October 2016
‘Did you know this is a family circus?‘ I’m asked by my acrobat neighbour, as we take our seats on the wooden benches around the sawdust ring. I was aware that Belgian troupe, Circus Ronaldo, are made up of real family members, so I answer yes, missing the point of her question.
What I didn’t realise, is that the excellent Fidelis Fortibus is Danny Ronaldo’s one-man show. Had I been anticipating the solo performance, I might have wondered more what the teasing query meant.
The white tent, framed by rustic wooden wagons, sits beneath strings of glowing bulbs and a gorgeously painted entrance board that boasts of warmth, glamour and variety in the acts we may see inside. Ring curtains are a rich red, topped with an ornately carved cross-piece. In the ring, we see brass instruments, and vintage effect circus props and bits of costume. The sawdust, however, is not raked flat.
Small mounds form a ring within the ring, marked with makeshift, shrinelike crosses. A forlorn-faced Danny Ronaldo, dressed in a military styled usher’s outfit, announces ‘No espectáculo. Toute la famille sont mortes’. Even if you’re unable to pick up the meaning of the mish-mashed languages used in the sparce moments of dialogue, the meaning is clear. And, darkly, hilarious.
Danny’s disappointment in our laughter is a delicious prompt to more, and we revel in that feeling of naughty children, stifling our giggles in the face of propriety until they burst out of us once more, prompting another sombre ‘No n’est comico’ from the man left holding the ring.
There can be no more laughter, he tells us: the clown is dead. As we are introduced to the graves and their occupants, their spectres refuse to stay quiet. A drum kit plays itself, a trumpet utters its own ghostly fanfare.
Softly spoken in his multinational pidgin, Danny draws us in as he relates the glorious histories of his deceased circus family, becoming inhabited by each of their spirits in turn: the grand illusionist, the juggler, the graceful tightrope walking ballerina, and his own love rival nemesis, the dashing trapeze artist. The high capabilities of the illustrious performers manifest within the inept usher, whose own inadequacies then seep through, creating colourful chaos.
Danny Ronaldo is a superb comic actor, but also carries an underlying pathos that brings real drama to his desperate attempts to revive an irretrievable past. There is more tangible peril as he hangs from a walking cane above a constructed tower of chairs than in the most carefully rehearsed aerial choreographies. His call of ‘No n’est comico‘ becomes torturously impassioned as the tragedy of being the last surviving member of his troupe finally hits home.
Fidelis Fortibus (‘faithful brave’ in Google latin) has been directed by Lotte van den Berg, continuing the company’s six generational family tradition of combining circus and theatre elements – which considerably pre-dates the late 20th Century trend – and doing so with atmospheric ease. Perfectly conceived and beautifully realised, the show is a skillfully funny entertainment that touches all human emotions, and leaves us with a final uplifting note of hope.