Review from: Southbank Centre, London; 14th August 2018
As I take my seat in the Royal Festival Hall, I spy an eclectic arranged stage space. No backdrop or large set pieces, numerous lights arranged on stage right, next to a musicians’ space. The remainder of the stage has rows of various clothing, buckets of dirt, stones, rope and even pieces of a knight’s armour. The house lights go down and the first image is of the ten cast members and two musicians satisfyingly filling every gap, nook and cranny. This is the only stillness I see for the next 80 minutes. Backbone, from the Australian company Gravity And Other Myths, is a stunning display of acrobatics, combined with a refreshing playfulness that has me feeling upbeat and strangely emboldened.
The show feels cohesive and has a delightful fluidity despite drawing its structure from a series of isolated ‘games’. There are games of trust, skill, endurance, group challenges and – at times – painful consequences for the losers. Each game has its own unique qualities with a theatrical and/or acrobatic twist which helps to punctuate the show. A game I particularly enjoy is when a single cast member is kept aloft by the rest of the cast, bending and manipulating her body while she keeps her gaze completely fixed on a single point. To me, at least, the games read as the title of the show – a backbone as a stimulus – but also as examples of the way we interact with people and our environments. Sometimes your individualistic wants or desires are paramount but, at other times, the collective objective supersedes all else. A reprise towards the end echos how these dynamics and games are played on repeat, cycling and continuing endlessly. Instead of being bogged down, the show carries a certain frivolity and joyfulness that is of benefit.
The playfulness also extends into the costuming, with clothing being constantly changed as the cast transition between games, and assist each other in dressing and undressing. Everyone has moments of prominence and it feels like a truly ensemble performance.
I’m a sucker for any form of live musicianship accompanying circus. I enjoy seeing the two musicians enter with the rest of the cast and being regarded as members as complicit in the play and punishment as everyone else. Although not suitable for all productions, live music adds another level to theatre and circus that cannot be achieved by pressing play on a backing track. In Backbone the musicians are more than just brilliant technicians, their characters are as alive as the other cast members.
Aesthetic considerations feature heavily, and G&OM appear to have mastered the art of creating striking, varied images without showboating an excessive budget. After an hour of visually consuming complex group acrobatic sequences, the calm of all 10 cast members balancing long poles on their heads is a refreshing and well timed image.
I was curious and sceptical upon spotting the numerous rotating lights (excuse my lack of technical language). However, these aren’t overused and, when in use, they are effective in adding to the images without crowding them. Moreover, focusing our gaze. Ensemble shows by nature are a busy business, and it can grow tiring for audience members to constantly scan for what they should be looking at; in this case, Geoff Cobham’s lighting design solves that.
The movement quality follows suit with a lovely blend of acrobatics, executed with a fluidity and continuity that is difficult to achieve. It wasn’t always about the hardest trick, but the one that suits the image the best.
Finally the ‘play’ carries on to the bows, where cast members engage in a final game of endurance with stones – this after 80 minutes of tirelessly performing acrobatics. They all do so with sweat, shaking arms and smiles all round.
Director: Darcy Grant
Set and Lighting Designer: Geoff Cobham
Creative Associate: Triton Tunis-Mitchell
Composers/Musicians: Elliot Zoerner and Shenton Gregory (find the music here)
Ensemble: Jacob Randell, Jascha Boyce, Lachlan Binns, Mieke Lizotte, Lewie West, Martin Schreiber, Joanne Curry, Lachlan Harper, Lewis Rankin, Jackson Manson
Producer: Craig Harrison