This years London International Mime Festival is offering an absolutely outstanding selection of international visual theatre, mime and circus. While the average ticket price of around £20 might bring water to your eyes, the quality of the work has been outstanding this year and Dark Circus does not fail to live up to this standard.
French company Stereoptik combine live music, animation and puppetry in a spell binding spectacle of visual storytelling. Both artists sit at desks on either side of the stage sounded by a host of instruments, lamps, light tables, cameras and other technical paraphernalia. The narrative plays out on a central screen – with projections mixed from the multiple cameras and relays at each table. It was hard to keep track of the different techniques used – from live painting in ink, sand, charcoal and pen, to live shadow puppetry and pre-recorded animation – all accompanied by a live musical score. If you’ve seen the work of English company Paper Cinema then you’ll know what to expect.
The narrative of Dark Circus was very simple, following the story of a circus in which each performer dies. Each performer’s story was told as a stand alone episode, with a ring master linking them. Unfortunately the narrative never really went beyond this very simple premise – existing more as a prelude to show off the technical wizardry of the music and animation, rather than as a story which could stand alone in its own right.
In its best moments the production was spellbinding, enchanting and awe-inspiringly inventive; a projection of a snare drum who’s surface becomes a moon, a guitar turning into a cage and then a singer, a scattering of sand magically transformed into the faces of an expectant audience. The way the live animation played with, and occasionally confounded, the audience’s expectations was exceptional, and was rightfully greeted with audible gasps of appreciation.
In its technical ability, there is no faulting the show. However it’s very hard to keep an audience entertained for a full hour with technical ability alone, and this is where the lack of narrative began to let the show down. The problem with episodic narratives is that unless there’s a strong through-line, it’s very hard to keep the audience attentive from episode to episode. The through-line here was that each performer died in the process of performing their act, but as a linking mechanism this wasn’t explored enough. The show was neither grotesque enough that we could revel in the impending demise of each performer, nor did we care enough about any of them to particularly mind when they did die. If anything the deaths were throwaway: neither celebrated, feared or morned – simply a punctuation mark to end another display of virtuosic animation.
The lack of any emotional investment in the outcome of the stories – or any coherent narrative arch resting over them – left the show without any clear route to find an ending for the story. Having failed to connect to any emotional truths, Dark Circus instead had to fall back on spectacle to find its denouement. In a show already kept afloat with spectacle alone, finding anything to top what we’d already seen was near impossible. The result was an ending that was surreal, baffling, and underwhelming in equal measure.
While this wasn’t a perfect piece of theatre, as a masterclass in theatrical invention and technique, Dark Circus is a must see performance for anyone interested in visual storytelling.
Conceived by Stereoptik
Adapted from an original story by Pef
Artistic Collaborator Frédéric Maurin
Performed by Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet
£18 plus booking fee BOOK HERE
26 – 30 January 2016 / 19:45, 15:00
The Pit, Barbican Theatre
Presented by the Barbican in association with London International Mime Festival