‘Wunderkammer’, by Circa

Underbelly, McEwan Hall, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 15th 2013

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Previous cast members from an evolving ‘Wunderkammer’

Australian company Circa bring a 21st Century polish to the classic circus form in ‘Wunderkammer’ in the McEwan Hall theatre. The crowds packing into their seats are energised by hazy nightclub beams of blue light and psi-trance beats, before Freyja Edney opens the show with a gleaming hula-hoop, on a stage lit with an after-hours red strip light. This is not, though, the belly-spinning of carnivals and fitness classes, but a series of physical isolations that make the hoop dance around her body like a spirited breeze to an elegant soundtrack of classical piano.

Alice Muntz steps forward into the light in burlesque gloves and black dress, and pulls out a surprisingly innocent green balloon. In a setting steeped with suggestions of sex, I don’t expect it to stay innocent for long; but neither do I expect it to go up her nose, and hang like a great green bogey.

Director Yaron Lifschitz has a remarkable knack for allowing us glimpses of his exceptionally talented performers’ human fallibilities in the midst of their superhuman physical magic; as the rest of the cast dance and tumble onto the stage in sporty black underwear and red-spangled glitz, he seems to be pointing a finger directly at the sexy reputation and mythologies of circus.

Male performers exert their machismo with puffed chests and acrobatic objects; fetishised props appear, with more rubber balloons, and a sheet of bubble-wrap which moves shy clown Muntz into ecstatic dance.  We enjoy the recognisable human impulses, and the performers palpably enjoy our presence too.

Lifschitz is confident in allowing us silence and stillness, and the show’s dynamics and pacing are superb.  Choreographic transitions fill the stage with energy, and no ring-master style announcements are necessary as acts flow from one into another.

A full company acrobatic number crafts some fabulous images; Scott Grove supports the weight of four other performers, Melissa Knowles is moved around the stage like a solid wooden doll, and the performers stack themselves one on top of another in an astounding number of permutations that taunt us with any gender-based pre-conceptions.

Space-shuttle sounds and violet light fill us with intrigue as a chinese pole is smartly rigged, which Todd Kirby and Lewis West appear to float around.  They are impeccably timed to both each other, and the classical notes of a soundtrack that lends a suggestion of story to the feats of grace and strength.

Circa Wunderkammer hula hoop performer
Freyja Edney, by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

A gravelly voiced Grove gives us an acoustic ‘Hey Big Spender’ on his guitar as the two pole acrobats strip down to their g-strings; Edney returns to reveal her impressive skills with a more conventionally spun hula hoop act, finally whipping 36 whirling rings around her body; Jarred Dewey, in studded black denim and motorcycle gloves, presents a lyrical static trapeze strip to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Book of Love’; and, back in ensemble acrobatic mode, some daring flinging and swinging draws an audible ‘Whoa!’ from the whole audience.

After Knowles takes a solo spot onstage to contort herself through a small metal hoop, the pace quickens and the mood darkens, with gender mixing costume changes and a manic recital of all the countries in the world from West.  The scene has an atmosphere of whirling force (although Muntz’ diabolo is a little awkwardly placed – I want either more or none at all).

In the final moments of the show, the seven performers collect themselves, and begin to strip away their extraneous sexual allures to movingly reveal themselves plainly.  Circa have done it again – dazzled us with spectacle, and then hit us with poignancy. Bravo.

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