‘Raven’, by Still Hungry

Review from: Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 3rd August 2019

I don’t see a lot of work about motherhood on stage. Not real, deranged exhaustion and ugly crying and body stealing motherhood. Maybe that’s because nearly all the work I see on stage these days is circus. It shocks me to realise now, but I never consider that the circus bodies of performing women could also be mothers in their real lives. It’s not part of the projected image outside of family orientated big top rings. So the appearance of Still Hungry – three globally touring circus women in their mid-30s and 40s, laying bare their realities of motherhood – is a welcome and overdue addition to the contemporary circus universe.

When we first see them, their sparkly shorts combined with drab everyday vest tops suggests some sort of conflict going on. On stage, a dramatic vertical rope and a domestic worn-in sofa vie for primacy in the centre of the space.

Anke van Engelshoven, Lena Ries, and Romy Seibt are, like all mothers, subject to feelings of guilt. Guilt that they’re not doing it right. Guilt that others are doing it better. Turns out, parenthood can be a tough, competitive pursuit. Add to the mix the tough, competitive career of circus performance, and you can multiply that guilt by a whole new set of factors.

Anke is an aerialist with a focus on straps work. She also loves to party, stay out late and see where the night takes her. Romy works on aerial rope and her own spinning rope/meteors apparatus that wraps like a scarf around her neck and limbs, weighted at both ends as she twirls it. She worries about the impact her training and performance have had on her children throughout pregnancy and beyond. Lena is a contortionist, travelling the world, fearing that she is being called a Raven Mother (‘Rabenmütter’) behind her back. A raven is a German term for a mother who puts her own desires before those of her children.

Black feathers flutter out of clothes and baby dolls parade through endless mountains of flying laundry. Fun and care seem to be set as opposites. Yes, the women make us laugh. Yes, they impress us with the technical circus skills that are such a vital part of their identities (contortionist Lena’s stretching skin is particularly engrossing). And yes, set against the gruelling regime of circus training, the gruelling routine of motherhood comes starkly into focus.

But of, course, the punishing schedules each have their rewards too. A final projection of home video – all the children playing inside a rehearsal tent – reveals that, for all the guilt these mothers have, they are also providing their children with beloved role-models. Heroes. Rock’n’roll goddesses.

I don’t have children, but I’m hoping I might, and this sort of performance, co-directed by Rachel Hameleers and with creative support from contemporary theatre powerhouse Bryony Kimmings, helps prepare women like me in a way that conventional presentations of blanket maternal delight and fulfilment simply can’t. And now there’s an audience for circus who are ready to see the super in the human, not just the fantasy superhuman.

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