Circus in Sydney

WHATEVER you call it – circus, burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, physical theatre, variety, magic – Sydney apparently can’t get enough of it. In January more than a dozen shows falling somewhere within these porous borders have fetched up, most as part of a mini-festival within the Sydney Festival or from other presenters keen to mine this rich vein of entertainment.

Festival director Lieven Bertels sensibly embraced the reality that Sydney in summer isn’t the most cerebral time of year and directed a lot of attention towards the enlarged Festival Village in Hyde Park. He put the Stonehenge-inspired bouncy castle Sacrilege just outside the village perimeter and inside put not one but two tents.

There is, of course, a Spiegeltent, without which it seems no Australian festival is complete. That venue is complemented by the smaller Circus Ronaldo Tent, allowing an impressive flow of circus and music events. (There’s a second Spiegeltent in town at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, housing the circus show Empire, a non-festival event.)

Tents are a pragmatic solution to the need for extra venues but they also add a frisson to proceedings. Amanda Palmer’s cabaret show would always have been immaculate, but it didn’t hurt to have a bit of Spiegeltent magic to top things. There was something very right about seeing her very intimate, confessional, conversational show here. Palmer’s diatribe against Vegemite and song about, ahem, maps of Tasmania, were right at home.

LIMBO"s swaingpoles routine. Photo: Prudence Upton

Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

It’s a different world inside the tent walls as performers defy normal physical limits, frequently show lots of flesh and encourage patrons to drop their inhibitions – up to a point. Patrons have to understand who is in charge and performers have to be very good at handling the over-excited or over-refreshed. Even if there isn’t audience participation in the strict sense, the atmosphere of shared experience between performer and paying customer is exceptionally strong. This type of theatre celebrates crossed boundaries and thrilling, fleeting intimacy. Then the circus moves on and we all go back to our daily lives.

It’s fascinating to see how avidly people put themselves forward to be part of the show. Some have a yen to shine a little too brightly, as Tom Flanagan discovered in his lovely show Kaput one afternoon. A woman selected to join him on stage got a bit over-theatrical so Flanagan fireman-lifted her back to her seat and moved on to another volunteer. All part of the risk.

In Kaput, Flanagan channelled silent-movie clowns as he fought a losing battle with inanimate objects. Everything that could go wrong would go wrong, and indeed even more mishaps than were in the script assailed him in the performance I saw, a situation he handled with enormous skill and charm. Also at the family end of things, Circus Ronaldo, gave a masterclass in classic physical comedy in La Cucina dell’Arte.

A late-night act, Scotch and Soda, which runs until the end of the festival, offers a relaxed, down-and-dirty show distinguished by great music and exuberant routines.

The Scotch and Soda team

The Scotch and Soda team

The best of the best, though, is LIMBO, which is packing out the Spiegeltent and also runs until January 27. Director Scott Maidment has ensured there’s tight connection within the cast rather than just a series of disparate acts, the music is blood-pumpingly good and the circus skills are off the chart.

Choreographed as intensely as a dance work, LIMBO nevertheless feels spontaneous and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt that the international cast is drop-dead gorgeous and very come-hither. The exemplar is American Heather Holliday, a sword-swallower and fire-eater with the glossy glamour of a 1950s movie pin-up, but they are all divine. I particularly loved Mikael Bres’s breath-taking Chinese pole turn, which is entrancingly dance-like;  Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine; and the trio of men weaving and swooping on long swaying poles. Boy, are these blokes ripped.

LIMBO is now the gold standard, helped immeasurably by the quality of the music. Created and directed by Sxip Shirey, the score has rough energy and great sophistication. It’s a show you could see again and again.

Empire claims to have the “sexiest, most daring” artists but the show tries a bit too hard to be transgressive. LIMBO, on the other hand, has sexual energy to burn without being vulgar. There’s no shortage of skill in Empire; it’s just that it doesn’t feel particularly well integrated into a total piece of theatre and much of the music is recorded. Empire does have two particularly strong acts in the foot juggling of Black Flintstone and Big Mac Boy, and the intensely demanding Branch Balance from Memet Bilgin, who builds a huge, airy leaf-shaped sculpture from palm branches so delicately poised that a breath can dismantle it.

As part of Summer at the House, the Sydney Opera House programmed a clutch of magic, circus and cabaret shows, the first of which was The Illusionists 2.0 (it has just moved on to Brisbane). The separate nature of its constituent parts means The Illusionists could continue following the death in Sydney of hypnotist Scott Lewis, but his loss robs the show of its closest contact with the audience.

Overall the show is Las Vegas slick, with lots of loud music, pulsing lights and writhing backing dancers, although there are moments of quiet with Yu Ho-Jin’s truly magical card tricks and the old-fashioned and charming shadow puppetry from Raymond Crowe, billed as The Unusualist.

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Also at the Opera House, Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Circus Under My Bed has the country’s next generation of circus performers linking impressive acts with a warm story about having to pack up toys and move house. The gambolling, tumbling sheep are an inspired touch, and the circus skills are exciting – although at the performance I saw the biggest reaction came when a performer got a cake pushed into their face. The old ones clearly never lose their charm.

It was interesting to see a young man nail a difficult trick that eluded poor Tom Flanagan, although to be fair, Flanagan had some sore trials to contend with during his show. (A water bottle thrown in the air is impaled on the spike of an umbrella, releasing water and thus giving the impression of rain. The kid took three goes when I saw it and got it first time up when a friend was there; Flanagan gave up after about half a dozen but we loved him anyway.)

And of course it would scarcely be summer in Sydney without Ursula Martinez and her nude-with-handkerchief  turn, Hanky Panky, in La Soiree, which has returned to the Opera House for a long run.

It is cheerful, bawdy burlesque whose oddity acts give it a wacky, distinctive personality.  Asher Treleaven’s Mills & Boon reading was worth the price of admission on opening night, but he was a late substitution for another act and isn’t on every night unfortunately. He’s a real winner. The Chooky Dancers, reduced to a company of three for the tiny round stage in the Studio, do Zorba the Greek, naturally.

The acts come through in a fast and furious manner and while the physical acts are superb, La Soiree depends very much for its punch on perverse comedy. Apart from Hanky Panky there is Miss Behave doing unusual things with scissors, gloves and skewers, Martinez putting on a spangly barely-there costume and setting her bits and pieces on fire, and various acts of physical daring.  It’s all extremely good-humoured, as long as you don’t mind your humour on the rough side.

And that’s only a sample of what’s around in this genre. Circus Oz has also been around, and finishes its regular Sydney summer season weekend.Also on the festival roster are, were or will be Ockham’s Razor, Lady Rizo, Band of Magicians and Bullet Catch. The latter two have had brilliant reviews and I was sorry to miss them.

The Sydney Festival ends January 27. Flying Fruit Fly Circus ends January 25, Empire ends March 2, La Soiree ends March 14. The Illusionists 2.0, Brisbane, from Sunday to January 27.

The urge to perform

I AM not a great fan of audience participation – certainly not for myself, and rarely when I see others roped in. Frequently it involves people making spectacles of themselves or being put in an awkward position they can’t wriggle out of. It almost invariably feels like a power trip on the part of the performers. Alternatively, getting up on stage can go to the non-professional’s head and embarrassment ensues. So no, not a great fan. In fact, I loathe it.

True, I managed to survive a spot of participatory action at The Rabble’s 2013 Melbourne Festival show, Room of Regret, but happily it was in an extremely benign form – the actor, me, and an otherwise empty space in which we gazed wordlessly at each other. I could manage that.

Full marks, then, to Sydney company My Darling Patricia and its latest theatre work, The Piper, which premiered at the Sydney Festival last week. The involvement of a section of the audience is a crucial part of the performance. In fact, The Piper couldn’t take place without these people, who play townsfolk and their children in a version of the Pied Piper story.

And get this. Not only does My Darling Patricia get a substantial workforce for free, the participating audience members pay just as much for their tickets as do those who sit back, relax and enjoy the performance. Respect.

I really do mean that. My Darling Patricia has found a way of involving even very young children in a non-threatening, creative way. The participants do nothing that would require expertise and are guided at all times via headsets. Their freshness and wonder are a delightful part of the experience for those who are only watching.

The Piper is a fun version of the old German legend, filtered through stories by poet Ted Hughes. There’s an over-developed city, countryside despoiled, a shonky mayor whose pronouncements could come straight from today’s media and, of course, a plague of rats that needs to be dealt with. Narration, puppetry, projection and live action combine to make a strong, clear, memorable story. I would have liked to take part and should have commandeered a child to make that possible.

A more recognisable take on audience participation was seen at Empire, the circus production that’s back in Sydney after a very successful outing at the beginning of last year. Empire positions itself at the raunchy end of the spectrum and to this end treats the audience a bit roughly, although why telling audience members to “sit the fuck down” might be considered witty escaped me.

But on to the participation bit. It’s common in shows such as Empire – the family includes La Clique, which morphed into La Soiree – for performers to interact with audience members in a way that might be considered, ahem, rather familiar. Drinks are stolen, laps sat on, heads fondled and so on. On the night I saw Empire a man was brought to the stage and touched up pretty comprehensively. True, he was laughing, as was everyone else (although not old sourpuss me). But what if he’d felt the performers were going beyond what he felt comfortable with? My first thought was that he had to be a plant for the performers to be sure the situation was containable and the act wouldn’t fall in a heap, but my date, highly experienced in this form of theatre, reckoned not.

Which brings us to control. Just as in stand-up comedy, the atmosphere in contemporary circus shows can be a little volatile. People are drinking and they are revved up. Shows such as Empire and La Soiree give people licence to drop their inhibitions; they encourage it. It’s a huge part of the allure. Most audience members know the game and how to play it. The boundaries may be a bit more flexible than those outside the tent, but people tend to be able to judge quite finely what level of abandon is acceptable.

But if they do overstep that invisible line the performers have to tidy things up, just as stand-up comedians have to deal with hecklers in a way that asserts their primacy over the heckler without losing the rest of the room. Indeed, in a way that wins over the room. It’s a quite delicate balance, even if it may not appear to be at the time. It requires a great deal of skill.

At Empire one of the comperes, Anne Goldmann, dealt abruptly with a young man who was making too insistent a noise and she came off as petulant and graceless. Those of us who were near him could see his companion trying to quieten him, and it looked very much as if he had some mild form of impairment. Goldmann, trying to perform, wouldn’t have been able to catch that, but when the two young men left and she shouted “Good riddance” at them, she was the one who came across badly. The put-down was schoolyard quality.

As I say, this is tricky territory. These shows invite raucous interaction with patrons and then have to deal with the consequences in a way that doesn’t rip the fabric of the show’s tone and fits in with the temperature and mood of the audience. Cabaret artist Meow Meow is extraordinarily adept at controlling her audience while acting in an extremely passive-aggressive manner, but then she is a goddess.

There is extensive audience participation in magic show The Illusionists 2.0, playing at the Sydney Opera House – all of it done extremely well and entered into most eagerly by patrons. I was impressed by the skilful handling of volunteers for the hypnotism section, a section of the show that is now, of course, absent due to the death on Saturday of hypnotist Scott Lewis.

I haven’t yet seen Oedipus Schmoedipus, the new show by small company Post in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, but will mid-week and will be watching the non-professionals closely. Like The Piper, Oedipus is highly dependent on volunteers, a crew that changes with each performance. Unlike with The Piper, I gather the Oedipus volunteers don’t have to pay anything, but then they do have to turn up to a rehearsal. And there are 24 needed for each show. Phew!

Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, part of the About an Hour mini-fest within the Sydney Festival, is another theatre work that enlists audience members during the course of the show, but it needs only a few. Given that he’s performed the piece several hundred times it’s reasonable to assume Crouch doesn’t have much trouble getting the help he needs. But then none of the shows seem to have the slightest problem getting people up on stage. Everyone may be critic. Just about everyone also seems to harbour a hankering to be a performer.

La Soiree, Sydney Opera House, January 15-March 16

The Illusionists 2.0, Sydney Opera House, ends January 16

I, Malvolio, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 16-19.

The Piper, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, ends January 19

Oedipus Schmoedipus, Belvoir St Theatre, ends February 2

Empire, the Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, ends February 16