Circus at Greenbelt Festival

Review: Three Men From the North, by The Nordic Council, and Strong Enough, by Strong Lady Productions. 26th and 27th August, 2022.

Practising circus is hard. I’m sure that’s no great revelation to anyone. Even when you love it, it is hard. People don’t expect watching circus to be hard though. But when you are in charge of a toddler – even though you love it – everything is hard. In a way, this is my half-hearted excuse for the massively reduced content this site is now putting out. My daughter was born during the pandemic, so for a while there was no circus to see. Now, however, the circus is out there, but either I can’t get to it, or I can’t concentrate well enough with a squirming child on my lap to justify a review, or I can’t find the time to get round to writing one alongside parenting and PhD work. I’m always looking for other circus folk to send me reviews of shows they’ve seen, so if that might be you down the line, don’t be shy, get in touch!

For now though, I actually DO have something to write about! This weekend at Greenbelt Festival in Kettering, I was able to catch two of the programme’s circus offerings IN FULL at their Playhouse venue.

The Nordic Council are a trio of Scandinavian circus artists – not, as I had previously supposed, a promotional body for Nordic arts in general (the show’s performers, Jakob Jacobsson, Merri Heikkilä, Bjarni Árnasson, are from Sweden, Finland and Iceländ respectively). I rattled off these thoughts when I had finally settled the little one down in our tent, after she had finally dropped off to sleep 10 minutes before the performance ended:

Three men with stoic expressions and woolly jumpers with reindeer on stare out at us, unmoved. Over the 55 minutes of this show, presented by the Nordic Council, the men build stools. They make coffee. They learn how to sing an English language pop-song. They balance objects on their heads. Everything says to me: long dark winters stuck indoors, passing the time. We watch an egg-timer. We wait for a cassette tape to rewind. There’s no haste or need for urgency here. The hours required to learn to juggle clubs, to toss diabolos, to play the accordion are in plentiful supply in this Scandinavian world. Strangely, the more mundane activity of putting together a piece of furniture seem clumsy in comparison to the consummate levels of skill evident in the circus techniques. Or perhaps this is a droll joke about the renowned trickiness of Ikea flatpack construction, branded as the set’s cardboard boxes and plastic bags are. That dry, wry humour would certainly be in keeping with the straight faces and my experience of Finnish humour. As we are told later, ‘Finnish man is like this’. In fact, the show takes me on a twist I didn’t expect. (Admittedly, this might be because I was watching with my 16mth old daughter in my lap, so my attention was considerably less focused than it usually is). Suddenly we have a reflection on masculinity. An expectation of what it is to be a man that, if not fully toxic, leaves at least an unpleasant sensation on the tongue, and a sympathy for those who might not readily fit that mould. The show is not exciting, and deliberately so. Instead, it is contemplative and, well, stoic. By the end, those emotionless faces mean something different to me than they did at the start. But ‘not exciting’ does not mean dull. Even my toddler’s attention was held completely for large sections of the show, which I assure you is no easy task.

During the second day of the festival, my daughter’s dad was able to join us, which left me free to attend Charmaine Childs‘ strong woman storytelling show without a baby in tow. I wasn’t expecting to find myself moved by feats of strength, but I was far from the only one left with wet cheeks by the time the show ended. The piece condenses autobiography, audio recordings of other people’s stories, and traditional demonstrations of strength in an expertly constructed 35 minutes. The length feels right, and I’m really glad that Childs and her co-director Charlotte Mooney haven’t succumbed to the temptation to stretch out to the ‘standard’ hour. Like muscle, this show has more power contracted than extended (which also makes it infinitely more suitable for outdoor as well as indoor bookings). The displays of lifting and balancing and breaking are used illustratively to emphasise what we hear in the verbal recounting of strengths and vulnerabilities that give this show its heart. And, like the best illustrations, they add weight and depth to the words that allow us to feel their impact in a more layered manner. It’s a disarmingly simple show, but with every detail attended to, lending it an unexpected richness. Childs is warmly charismatic with her openness, optimism and encouragement. Because what she is really showing us is that we are all strong too. Especially when we don’t feel it. When everything is hard, shepherding a toddler around a festival after travelling with her on four trains to arrive and unpack and get to work… that is when I am displaying my own strength. And I love being made to acknowledge that.

I feel like I should also say something about the commonalities of the two shows in their unsung and unassuming portrayals of unconventional gender presentations, but already I’m running out of time and energy to do so. This time I’ll make no apology though. It was an act of strength getting this far!

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