This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe had an estimated 3,700 shows running between 2nd and 27th August. Whilst I usually focus on those based in circus technique, there are also more theatrical shows that take circus as their subject matter.
Celebrating this year’s anniversary of Philip Astley’s first entertainment establishment, which spawned a circus legacy, is Chris Barltrop‘s illuminating one-man play Audacious Mr Astley. Barltrop is perhaps more widely known in circus circles for his lengthy career as a ringmaster, although he is also a classically trained actor and it’s an enjoyable surprise for me to see him embody another character so naturally. He has also been a thorough researcher of circus history, and many unusual gems are brought to life in his retelling of the familiar Astley story from the perspective of ‘the man himself’. The costume is sumptuously authentic, and the stage is very simply set, with a performer’s trunk, a tall candlestick (for slicing carrots from, naturally), a stool that stands in for a horse on several occasions, and a large banner depicting Astley’s wife and business partner Patty riding in the circus ring. A running joke of ‘just don’t call it a circus’ gives an amusing sense of how history shifts and changes, after rivals Charles Hughes and Charles Dibdin coin the – back then – overly pompous term several years after Astley’s own initial success with his class-defying form. There are some nice moments where audience members are involved in the storytelling, and it feels that this is a play that would work best in a Year 6 history programme for schools. That said, my adult photographer friend, who visits with me, tells me how much he enjoyed learning about these circus origins as, despite this year’s Circus250 publicity, he had never heard of Astley and his innovations before.
In a very different vein, comes a two-woman physical comedy based on the lives of two circus sealions. Lucille And Cecilia (yes, it’s a pun) is an absurd and very funny debut from Bang Average Theatre, performed with complete conviction and attention to physical detail by Susie Scott and Chloe Darke. Although very different in style to last year’s Goody by BoonDog Theatre, Lucille And Cecilia covers similar ground in exploring the codependent facets of captivity and care that rub up alongside each other in animal/human relations. Both women at times play masked keeper Trevor, allowing us to to see the individual perspective each sealion has cultivated through their relationship – for one, he is a beloved companion, for the other, an abusive captor. Consent and contentment, satisfaction and dissatisfaction are tossed around together with the buckets of fish and rubber balls, and no clear answer is given to the Stockholm syndrome or safety conundrum. What is clear are the comic chops of these two unusual clowns. People who say slapstick is just for kids have forgotten what it looks like when done well. The cleverly written Lucille And Cecilia would prove a great reminder.
BoonDog Theatre have also been back at the Fringe this year, with another of their dustbowl circus trilogy. Showmanship focuses on the American tradition of sideshow fortune-tellers who would travel with circuses, and is a one-woman vehicle for Lucy Roslyn’s excellent acting talent. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see this show due to a tightly packed schedule, but I will be keen to catch it if it tours near me in South Wales.
Another production that I wasn’t able to fit in but would have been interested to see was the gig performance of I Said Yes To Everything by singer-songwriter Wrenne. Whilst her high, sweet vocals might not be to my taste, I’ve heard she has a very acrobatic way of performing that led some people to compare her show to something P!nk would produce (and she’s one of my faves!).
A show that was high on my list and which did not disappoint was Notorious Strumpet Dangerous Girl by Jess Love. The circus and sideshow artist’s 2016 creation is based on her own struggles with addiction and identity, tying genetics, bingo and a bold convict settler of an ancestor into an unexpected evening of multi-disciplinary theatre. In the autobiographical tale, framed as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the elements of circus technique are incorporated into the narrative as memories of particular performances moments from Love’s past, whilst their choreography tells us more about the mental state that she’s retrospectively reflecting on – phenomenally fast blink-and-you-miss-it-blasé hoop tricks, punishing endurance skipping, and past-endurance drunken trapeze dangling. Her circus lifestyle is shown as one of many examples by which she feels different from her immediate family of Christian school teachers, and finding a great-great-great-great-grandmother who was likewise rebellious towards society’s norms has been one of Love’s keys towards finding self-acceptance. The show is funny and impressive but also powerful and moving. Balancing on a line of golden, darkly glinting Champagne bottles, Love performs a perfect metaphor for the allure of dangerously addictive behaviour.
Skills often referred to as ‘circus’ appear as tools in other sorts of theatrical productions too. The return of Poland’s Teatr Biuro Podrozy with their seminal political street theatre Carmen Funebre – and it’s sequel of 23 years later, Silence – includes stilt and fire work; the beautiful children’s dance-theatre show What The Moon Saw from 2Faced Dance has aerial hoop work and some acrobatic choreography blended through the charming design and transformative story. The extraordinary and politically relevant adventure of Eva Peron’s corpse and it’s three body doubles is told by Annie Dugan, who performs the whole show in a sling of aerial silks, accompanied by accordionist Jason Kodie, in Operation EVAsion by Canada’s Firefly Theatre.
I’m reminded of my visit to Winchester’s Hat Fair festival earlier this summer, where many of the outdoor arts shows included what I would usually call circus skills. But now this nomenclature becomes difficult. Because these skills were always employed by itinerant street performers and open-air entertainers, long before they were incorporated into Astley’s ring and subsequently given the name of circus. Is there a disservice being done to this heritage by calling these art forms by the name of their upstart child? I think the convention is now too widely spread to change at will, but there is merit in questioning the established narrative of our 250th anniversary. If you dig into it, you’ll see 1768 marks the start of an institution, but that institution has fragmented and diversified and the name is now applied to a range of activity that was in existence long before Astley founded his Ha’penny Hatch riding school. I’ve been interested in following the research of Dr Olga Sorzano, who exposes the Eurocentricity of the common approach to understanding circus history, and reveals parallel tracks that have largely remained invisible in circus narratives of the global North.
And these street artists, with their range of physically exceptional skills, are still finding their ways back into the ‘legitimised’ spaces of theatres. Thomas Stewart is Melon the Human, a Skrillex-loving life-like android with excellent object manipulation skills and the dry comic improvisational talent that would draw in hordes of happy crowds up on the Edinburgh cobbles. Down in a Free Fringe basement though, there’s no opportunity to absorb passers-by, and it seems a sad waste of Stewart’s kooky charisma to be playing to an audience that, when I see him, I could count on two hands.
That’s not to say the leap can’t be made from street-style spectacle into a ticketed space, however. Cluster Arts present Hoopla Clique’s Chores in the miniature children’s spiegeltent venue, the Piccolo, at Assembly’s George Square Gardens. Here the bounds of the venue help focus the drama of two boys caught up in attempts to tidy their bedroom, theatrical gizmos and voice-over sound effects adding to the complete world they create for us over an entertaining, hour-long romp. Although the show has the energy required to engage outdoor audiences too, this venue set-up also provides a handy means to merchandise to departing audience members, big grins still shining on small faces.
And that’s where we link back to Mr Astley’s entrepreneurial innovations. He bounded his ring with circular walls so only those who had paid their entrance fee would be treated to the delights within. He changed the programme of events within his venue regularly to keep the same visitors coming back for more over and over again. Perhaps, now, its really Edinburgh Festival Fringe itself that is the liveliest incarnation of Astley’s circus establishment 250 years on?