Promotional image of Sawdust Symphony. A man's torso protrudes from a trapdoor in a wooden floor. He looks up, arms raised. Above him, in the air, is a hammer.

‘Sawdust Symphony’ by Michael Zandl, David Eisele, and Kolja Huneck

Review from: Circus City festival, Bristol; 5th Oct 2023

A fly on the wall outside Unit 15 tonight would have listened to a lot of laughter. Nervous giggles, chuckles of pleasure, surprised snorts and satisfied sniggers. In between would have been pin-drop silences broken by the tap of hammers on nails, the grind of chisels held against spinning wood, the almost imperceptible plop of viscous glue, and the occasional power tool roar. A soundtrack of opera, percussive electronic composition and odd whispered meditations on creation and destruction would have formed the background to occasional vocal grimaces, squeals and squirms from a rapt audience that punctuate the laughter. And, finally, huge applause and whoops for the three circus carpenters who have performed tonight’s Sawdust Sympony.

There is no hyperbole in the title. The show, from David Eisele, Kolja Huneck and Michael Zandl, is an elaborate symphony of parts and rhythms. But, from my vantage point inside the venue, it is a visual symphony rather than a musical one (no shade to musician and sound designers Juliano Abramovay and Lasse Munk, whose work is an essential element of the overall orchestration).

A waist-high wooden stage of uneven length planks is the stave from which the different notes leap and play. Object manipulation and new magic combine to conjure rich and highly unusual interactions between the three performers and their world of woodwork. I lose count of the hidden trapdoors at number seven, and don’t even begin to try with the whac-a-mole nails that appear and disappear throughout the show. Sawdust accumulates in mysterious piles that beg to be touched, or drifts in romantic flakes from above. A bottomless bucket of slop sucks its willing victim in headfirst, and a spinning top is carved from a lathe and whipped into action before our eyes.

The success of the piece, beyond the technical mastery and attention to textural detail, can be attributed to the contrasting roles of the three performers. All engage with their subject in their own way, each with their own spatial rules and tempo. I am reminded of a classical clowning structure where the elegant straightman is accompanied by a hapless fool, and counterpointed by a grotesque weirdo. While the costuming tonight retains the utility and unassuming nature of woodcrafter’s overalls, the spirit and energy radiating from the stage evokes clown craft above all. Artistic advice from Lucho Smit and Darragh McLoughlin has seemingly stood in very effective stead of a conventional director.

The experiments that led to this work have explored the jugglability of different objects, and the team led a workshop as part of the biennial Circus City festival that I would have loved to be able to take part in. I would also have loved to be able to get a sneak peak beneath the curtain that masks their under-stage area. It’s where the real magic happens, to create the illusions that entertain us above. I noticed one of the festival’s Instagram stories mentions catapults, which I had not even realised were involved! The team’s capacity to continually surprise throughout the 60 minute show is an absolute delight. They create a delicious intrigue – what will happen next? – and couple it with harmonies of tension and relief through bodily risk, humour and gorgeous aesthetic interludes (shout out to Sanne Rosbag’s lighting design and the special effects created by Zandl and Philipp Dünnwald).

In the end, each performer has found their own idiosyncratic bliss in a shared world of woodworking and, in that, they are united. It’s silly, stupid, and oh, so satisfying. I feel their joy, and my notebook pages are covered in little doodled hearts.

A photo collage with a background of wooden planks, piles of sawdust, long nails pointing inwards, and several trapdoors. Three clown figures of different genres create a diagonal line from top left to bottom right: a European style whiteface clown, standing elegantly next to neat rows of chisels, Charlie Chaplin holding a hammer, and animated grotesque character Salad Fingers covered in slime.
After the show I was inspired to create a visual response more than I was to write words. Here is my ‘collage review’ of Sawdust Symphony!

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