Circus 1903 at the Royal Festival Hall has magic and awe-inspiring, death-defying, feats

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus: Royal Festival Hall, London. 19.12.2019. (JPr)

Circus 1903‘s ‘African Elephants’ (c) Dan Tsantilis

Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus returns to London’s Southbank after a very successful run last year. It is the latest in a long line of similar shows – think Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Berserk! (currently at Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) – to reinvent circus as it used to be – with clowns, jugglers, acrobats, aerial artists and performing animals – for a twenty-first century audience.

My love for the circus goes back a long way especially at this time of the year. As a young child in the 1960s I was taken to Olympia to see the Bertram Mills Circus – during one of its annual London seasons – where I saw Coco, the legendary clown. Then for a few years London played host to the Circus World Championships; and one of the last big shows like that I remember most was Gerry Cottle’s Christmas Circus and Carnival at Wembley Arena in the early 1990s which featured the late Jeremy Beadle as the ringmaster. Over subsequent years touring circuses have rolled into town for me to see as I am forever young-at-heart. However, these have never matched those halcyon circus days, nor even further back to 1903 when – as the glossy Circus 1903 souvenir programme reminds us – ‘the long-established Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth returned to the United States after a five-year tour of Europe.’

Circus 1903 combines some very familiar circus arts, their extravaganza and thrills, with music, movement and theatre. I say ‘familiar’ because that is what they are to me because I have seen most of these acts before, but they have been now repackaged by inventive – and appropriately turn-of-the-century –  stage designs (Todd Edward Ivins), colourful costumes (Angela Aaron), impressive lighting (Paul Smith) and Evan Jolly’s full-on recorded score performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Adam Klemens. I thoroughly enjoyed the slick presentation, despite the blurring of the lines between pantomime, choreography, physical theatre … and circus.

This is not really the place to debate the ban on wild animals in circuses that has led to the decline in ‘traditional’ circus as much as the greater sophistication some children expect these days from their entertainment. However, where can children come close to – and learn to love – the lions, tigers, and elephants now often critically endangered in the wild? Zoos and safari parks are also under threat from the same people who have brought about this change in what circuses can present; so what might only be left in the future – for those who cannot afford to travel to the world’s national parks and game reserves – are the TV nature programmes of Sir David Attenborough and others. Undoubtedly there was mistreatment in the past, but when those keeping exotic animals base their care now on enriching their environment, then performing could be part of that, assuming they are looked after respectfully.

These are no mere idle thoughts because instead of live animals, Circus 1903 has two magnificent – impressively life-like – puppet African elephants, designed by some of the team behind War Horse. The imposing 10-and-a-half feet high Queenie is manoeuvred by a trio of remarkable puppeteers; while just one works her boisterous calf Karanga – otherwise known as Peanut – who frolics around the stage. The presence of puppeteers inside these two ‘Mammoth Mastodons’ – a typically overblown description in the programme – quickly passes from your mind and my imagination took flight. I could believe they were living and breathing and with the greatest respect to all the skilled artists we got to see – and the death-defying tricks from some of them – it was this pair of ‘Prodigious Pachyderms’ who were my highlight of my evening.

As for the rest it will depend on how much modern non-animal circus you are also familiar with, as to how much your jaw will drop or how long at times you will need to hold your breath. Sometimes a little juggling, acrobatics and aerial work can go a long way but with Circus 1903 the acts you will see are some of the very best. Look out especially for The Elastic Dislocationist (Senayet Asefa Amare) tying herself into knots as she give a new meaning to ‘looking up old friends’; The Great Rokardy (Rokardy Rodriguez) who balances on his hands on some rather wobbly framework as he almost reaches the roof of the Royal Festival Hall; The Flying Fredonis (Daria Shelest and Vadym Pankevich) perform a deeply sensual, aerial ballet; and – if you have not seen an act like it before – The Magnificent Marvellos will stun you with their Wheel of Death routine as their perform somersaults in and on top of their rapidly spinning huge shiny apparatus, think hamster wheels!

There are no ‘traditional’ clowns, and everything is held together by David Williamson – one of the world’s leading magicians – as the avuncular Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade. He is already seen working the audience taking their seats before the show begins and his interaction with both adults and children (one as young as 3!) is pitch perfect. He never belittles nor humiliates his very young stooges, and their involvement is a fundamental and hugely enjoyable part of the show. At one point – in a reflective paean to what brings people like me back time and again to circus – Williamson (as Willy) talks about talent and all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, as well as, how ‘at the circus, magic is real’. This is the true essence of Circus 1903 and Williamson provides his own brand of real magic; from having you scratch your head wondering how he conjures up a child’s shoe you have earlier seen him throw offstage, to the laugh-out-loud antics of Rocky, his ‘raccoon’.

It is a pity a venue cannot be found to allow an audience to have a more intimate experience of it all. Much that we see seems humanly impossible and I suspect some of its impact could be lost if you sit further back than we were in the barn-like Royal Festival Hall. But that caveat aside this is as enjoyable a family-friendly theatrical experience as you are ever like to see.

Jim Pritchard

For more about Circus 1903 at the Southbank click here.

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