‘Duel Reality’, by The 7 Fingers

Review from: Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 26th August 2023

The 7 Fingers (or Le Sept Doigts de la Main, in their original nomenclature) are one of the iconic pillars of Montréal circus that grabbed the world’s attention in the early years of the 21st Century. Over the last two decades they have become prolific producers, occasionally innovating, usually focusing on high quality, audience-pleasing entertainment. Duel Reality, originally created with Virgin Voyages to be performed aboard their cruise ships, manages both.

The quality of technique from the performing company of ten is impeccable, the pace is energising and dynamic, and the design is clean and pleasingly simple. Conceptually though, the verdict is a little more polarising. Which feels somewhat ironic, considering the theme of the show, which is based upon the dangers of bipartisan politics and civil feuds. I had to mentally reframe what I was seeing twice during the production and, while this is interesting, it ultimately left me disappointed for the loss of what I thought I was being offered.

So what was that? At first, a sports stadium marked out in crisp lines, a red side and a blue. As audience members we too are branded with one colour or the other, and segregated into our designated teams. Performers, doing a great job of integrating themselves subtly amongst us, become immediately apparent once a faux fracas begins in the stands and gradually draws the aggressors to the stage. Red versus blue battle-lines are drawn, and individual scuffles coalesce around two central Chinese poles. The soundtrack is from Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo and Juliet, adding to the subtle pointers in the advertising copy that Shakespeare’s classic has been an inspiration for the show. So far, so Sharks and Jets.

A referee enters (surely I’m not the only one to notice he was previously wearing red? Will we really see fair play here?), and begins to speak into a microphone. This is Shakespeare’s prologue – we’re definitely in R&J territory now – appended with a rousing ‘Let the games begin!’.

First then, a Chinese Pole-off between Kalani June and William Underwood. The mimed kicks and real leaps, swaps and drops are riveting, although the sports team-like exhortations from the rest of the cast to join in cheering and booing for the different colours is less sophisticated. My role in the crowd – and watching my fellow audience members – is a bit awkward. I don’t want to get drawn into uncritical mob behaviour. Maybe this would suit me better if I were a sports fan, happy to join in for my team regardless. Perhaps my old theatre training has made me too familiar with the theories of Augusto Boal to trust that it’s OK to join in with this aggression. I definitely think the Ref is cheating when he calls the red team as the winner though, measuring distance from competitor to floor after a particularly daring synchronised headfirst dive down the poles. Veteran Underwood, in the blue, was barely an inch away!

Two more challengers come forward, armed with a juggling ball and a mic. The few lines of dialogue are again from Shakespeare – Do you bite your thumb at us, sir? – before Round 2 is called for. Jazz and juggling combine as Andreas De Ryck and Anni Küpper front while showing off their ball and club skills respectively. The vibe is more of a breakdance battle than a real fight however; spirits remain good, and the energy in the Underbelly venue remains upbeat.

Elegant and formal dance music is accompanied by mechanical steps around the stage. This must be the ball scene, I think to myself and, sure enough, here is one blue girl (Soen Geirnaert) and one red boy (Nicolas Jelmoni) making eyes at each other across the party. The lyrics ‘Did my heart love till now’ filter through the musical backing. About now my first reframing takes place: Oh, this isn’t just inspired by R&J. It’s an actual circus version of Shakespeare! And they’re doing a brilliant job! Can’t wait to see where this goes! You can tell by the exclamation marks, I was excited. Here is successful innovation indeed.

A scene of frivolity and contemporary charleston – featuring Méliejade Tremblay-Bouchard‘s hula-hooping and raucous bursts of hoop jumping through her props (blue, because of course it’s the Capulets’ party) – degenerates into a more decadent and orgiastic mood as Arata Urawa holds the central ring with his fluid diabolo choreographies.

Our Romeo and Juliet seek each other out. Alone now, to a soundtrack of aroused breath, they perform a duo acro routine with extraordinary pace, drops and spins so close to the ground that the risky thrill of their liaison is thoroughly embodied. Their passion is echoed in the melodic refrain of ‘A thousand times goodnight’, repeated, and repeated and repeated as they struggle to let each other go. The editing and composition of Shakespeare’s text is incredibly well done. Just enough to frame the scenes, not too much to overwhelm those unfamiliar with the language, and selected for iconicity. As the lovers are forced apart by their houses into a punishment of aerial chains, I recite my own quote in my head: My only love sprung from my only hate.

The two characters who began the row that opened the show are revealed now to be Mercutio (Einar Kling-Odencrants) and Tybalt (Danny Vrijsen), who enter again into their argument. First, in contemporary language denouncing the sporting facade of a game, and then into the heated enmity of Shakespeare. They face off at opposite ends of a teeterboard, and the sudden crack of an ending is excellently done.

But now I’m forced into my second reframing. This is not a circus version of Romeo & Juliet after all. Big spoiler here…

…Instead of descending into further tragedy that creates such impact in Shakespeare’s original, Juliet is magically able to win over all the warring parties by stripping them of their colours and revealing that they all have the same black outfits on beneath. It’s naively idealistic. If a young girl could really bring adults, set in their ways, to their senses for the greater good, the world would have seen radically different responses to Greta Thunberg’s appeals over climate change. In R&J, the adults only saw reason after the tragedy unfolded. Perhaps this ending is a suggestion that we need not do the same, but it all feels rather trite. Despite the Fringe standard of 60 minute shows, I would have happily sat through another hour to see the full resolution of a circus Shakespeare. I was so invested in the story that the invitation to throw our coloured bands into the ring almost passed me by. That too felt trite and token.

However… I have a great chat after the show with Tamsin from PyroCeltica, who has had the seat next to me throughout. She found a powerful political message in the show, where the throwing down of our coloured armbands became a rehearsal for throwing off binary shackles of political affiliation that have become so much about Us and Them factions rather than actual policy in recent years. This message, of eschewing dichotomies that pit us against each other and finding common ground to work from instead, is one that I can really get behind. Unfortunately, I am still too caught up in the fact that the company decided they could improve upon the power of Romeo & Juliet by giving it a happy ending to see it. Not every innovation is an improvement on what came before.

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