Australian circus powerhouse Circa return to this years London International Mime festival with an ambitious piece devised from Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria: the story of Ulysses (Odysseus), hero of the Trojan war, and his epic journey to return to his home in Ithaca where his wife Penelope is besieged by suitors. The show takes four moments from the original opera, and intermingles them with folk song and new compositions. The production focusses on the ideas of displacement and loss of home, and attempts to recast the Ulysses myth through the lens of Primo Levi’s post WW2 European displacement. The company describe the piece as a physical poem which sees six highly skilled artists precariously lift, hold, levitate and fall, their movements driven by the twin forces of desire and absence.
The production is a patchwork of individually outstanding elements that never quite come together. As you would expect from one of the worlds leading circus companies – The Return delivers a breathtaking display of physical dexterity and acrobatic set pieces. The set, by Jason Organ and Yaron Lifschitz, a huge rusting steal wall simply and evocatively suggests the great walls of 20th century displacement – the Walls of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli West Bank Wall. The lighting design by Jason Organ was stark and bleak – harsh shadows and a monochrome pallet to evoke the plight of the stateless. The live music, provided by a sextet of two singers, cello, violin, harp and harpsichord, was sumptuous. The electronic score was atmospheric, sparse and yet energised.
The problem with all of these beautiful elements is that they never pulled together into a single whole. So the muscular bleak set of slab metal rusting wall, was almost completely diffused by placing the luscious baroque musicians, replete with gold gilt harp, velvet dresses and operatic girths on stage with it. If it had been handled differently the opulence of the musicians placed within the bleakness of the set could have served to highlight the contrast between them, but sadly in this case it just looked like the designers hadn’t had the forethought – or perhaps courage – to tell the singer that her favourite purple velvet dress probably wasn’t appropriate to the bleak post apocalyptic world they were trying to create. Ultimately the job of theatre is to immerse us in an alternative world, which means at the very least anyone you put on stage has to be part of that world.
The uneasy marriage of circus and opera wasn’t contained to just the visuals though. Sadly the sumptuousness and intricacy of the baroque music, just didn’t give the performers the scoring they needed to bring the movement together. This became apparent when the live score was intercut with the contemporary electronic score. The louder, more high energy music, gave a new lease of life to the performers on stage and lifted their performance accordingly. Which begged the question – why have two separate scores – a live one and a recorded one? Why not have mixed the live baroque with electronic score to create a single musical pallet – rather than two separate ones? It felt like someone had told Circa that they should try making some Culture with a capital C. Obviously Opera has a very capital C, but having decided to bring elements of opera into the production, it then felt they were scared or perhaps in ore of it. So rather than reworking the music and blending it with the electronic score that worked so well. They left the opera ‘pure’ and untouched. Only bringing in their own interpretations and score as breaks to the live music. It was the same as the physical treatment of the opera – rather than working with and blending the musicians with the rest of the design, performers and world of the show, they left them their in their velvet opera finery, untouched, literally on a plinth at the side of the stage.
And this pattern, of individually excellent elements sitting uncomfortably next to each other, didn’t just exist between the different components of the show but also within the different elements. The set pieces and acrobatic displays of the performers were outstanding. The movements of the performers when they were performing the set pieces did at times really evoke the themes of desire and absence – and yet when the performers where not moving, when they were trying to just give focus, or when they were moving into or out of a set piece, they did it pretty much in neutral. There was no sense of a single ensemble feeling, emoting and breathing together. There were just individual performers and whoever happened to be doing the ‘trick’ at any given time. And sadly – without the collective support of an ensemble – the set pieces and acrobatics never felt like they became any more than just entertaining tricks.
It is fantastic to see Circa experimenting and pushing their creative output. It’s a wonderful thing to try to get inspiration from other art forms and practice – whilst trying to push your own form and practice as far as it will go. If we want to celebrate experimentation and risk taking then we also need to celebrate it when it fails. That is the essence of a risk – if there wasn’t a strong chance it would fail it wouldn’t be a risk. The Return was an absolutely epic and wonderful failure. And I really salute Circa for that. It has excellent lessons for any theatre maker. Your first, and most important job is to create a coherent world – no amount of technical wizardry, physical dexterity, musical accomplishment or any other outstanding element in a show can survive alone – if the world in which they are set doesn’t hang together. And your second job is to be playful. Even in the most serious shows, you need to be able to play with all the elements and material you’re using to bend them to the needs of the world you’re creating. If you’re scared of an element, or feel it’s too scared to be played with, bent and occasionally broken, then you’re not ready to use it in the production.
Created by Yaron Lifschitz with Quincy Grant and the Circa ensemble
Composers Claudio Monteverdi, Quincy Grant, John Barber, Jakub Jankowski, Cornel Wilczek
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
Musical supervisor and arranger Quincy Grant
Musical Director Natalie Murray Beale
Technical direction and lighting by Jason Organ
Costumes by Libby McDonnell
Stage design by Jason Organ and Yaron Lifschitz
London International Mime Festival
27 – 31 January 2016 / 19:45, 14:30
£16–30 plus booking fee*
*£3 booking fee per online transaction, £4 by phone. No fee when tickets are booked in person. Click here for more information on booking fees.