Circus 1903 – The lost circus narrative captured in beauty. (Theatre Review)
The Sydney Opera House Dec 18-29 2016
The Regent Theatre Melbourne Jan 3 – 12 2017
The Circus has undergone so many changes and controversies over its 250 modern history, not the least of which has been the transformation of its audiences. From the pre-modern format, belicose style affairs of the 1400’s that strove to emulate the ancient Greek and Roman gladiatorial spirit of the chariot races, through to Cirque de Soleil, almost every socio-economic group has found the circus speaking to them exclusively. This ability for the Circus to remain pure spectacle, to unselfconsciously play to a single narrative and step out of any perspective other than the spectators is a way for an audience of any age to experience a pure wonder, exemplified both in the mythological child’s dream to escape to the circus and the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film The Circus. We do want to escape to the circus, to live in the single dimension of being pure spectacle. Surely the difficulties of the gaze of the other lie in our awareness and response to this. The circus performer is only spectacle. They hold no mirror, only offer the practised performance for your gaze. In this way, the circus is like no other performance. It lacks the moral awareness of theatre, the demands on participation found in live music, and the multiple perspectives of film. It is the only public gathering where the spectator is spectator only, and the show remains untouched by that gaze.
Circus 1903 is a beautiful piece of circus history that seeks to incorporate its displays into a self-reflective narrative. For this reason, it reminds the audience of the Charlie Chaplin film (made in 1928) that examines the relationship between the watcher and the participant. Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp stumbles into the circus while being chased by police only to find that his impromptu antics are funnier than any clown. However, when the manager tries to hire him to perform, the routine and technique serve to corrupt the facility to entertain. This is a commentary on the audience. In the early part of the show, the audience misinterprets The Tramps desperate run for survival as a comic interlude; the origin of comedy is to be sought precisely in such cruel blindness, unaware of the tragic reality of the situation. The audience is blind to the dangers of the performers, even to the point where stumbles and falls appear to be injected into the program of Circus 1903 to heighten the tension for the audience who both want to see and want to escape human tragedy. Circus 1903 refuses the glossy spectacle of the 2016 Barnum and Bailey affairs, and examines itself, through its staging, its interest in a certain time period and the overwhelming presences of puppets in place of “real” animals.
Of course, just as the performers have never been “real” and the audience refuse the “real,” the animals have always been puppets, tamed into a submission that was identified as cruelty since PETA released its 2008 report on the routine abuse required to get circus animals to perform. Circus 1903 beautifully depicts this anomaly using giant life sized puppet elephants, who appear as so magically real they carry the weight of their tragedy with them. The use of puppetry inserts the commentary missing from the circus spectacle while equally signposting the remarkable visual connection between human performers and puppets. This meta narrative has the power to inject a profound nostalgia for the ephemeral and lost beauty of the old circus while reminding us it was never ours to grasp. Through its animals, the circus has found a way to speak to its audience, and the communication results in a joy of recognition between the performers of Circus 1903 and those of us baring witness to one dimensional spectacle. The warmth of the circus’ mysteries pours like a wave over the spellbound audience who feel drawn into an unknown world they’d only ever been allowed to see from the outside.
Herein lies the great and enlightened beauty of Circus 1903. It is not in its acrobatic feats, although they are sublime and world standard. It lies in the combination of historical acknowledgement and consciousness of animal dignity that ignites and connects the circus to a more complicated narrative. I was lucky enough to attend Circus 1903 with another adult and three children, and therefore witness the deep and profound joy the children around me experienced as thy bore witness to a world that reached out for them, rather than displayed itself randomly. The children I watched had no need to run away to the circus, for Circus 1903 had brought it successfully to them, replacing spectacle with connection, shock with beauty and fear with warmth. Children love this beautiful show. Adults get to experience the connection with something lost, and feel the ethereal pass through, but the real joy of Circus 1903 is in bringing a child, and watching the ecstasy of youth pass over their face.
Circus 1903 runs for all too short a time in Sydney and Melbourne. You can get to it in the great hall of The Sydney Opera House December 18 – 29 and in Melbourne January 3 – 12. This is a show that can’t be missed.