2016 marks the 500th anniversary since the death of medieval Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. His vivid and visionary vistas, where fantasy landscapes are peopled with with earthy human characters, have inspired artists across genres for half a millennium. I wonder, though, if there could be any more appropriate vehicle for celebrating their essence than circus? The contorting figures, decorous architectures, and essential humanity that populate Bosch’s paintings are a logical inspiration behind the Circus Jeroen Bosch commission from the JB500 Foundation.
Initiated by the biennial Festival Circolo (previously Circo Circolo), the Circus Jeroen Bosch programme has invited world renowned companies and local artists to respond to the painter’s life and work. The original spelling of the artist’s name is Jheronimus, and Jeroen is the Dutch abbreviation, emphasising familiarity with a homegrown talent. The woodland setting of the festival is only 15 minutes from the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch where the famous painter lived.
In the same region is Fontys ACaPA, one of the Netherlands’ two circus degree schools, who have a long held relationship with the festival. This year, the Start Up strand of the Circus Jeroen Bosch programme has facilitated the development and touring of three shows from graduated students of the academy: Michael Deprez presents 25 minute ball juggling project Spectrum, in which crumbling casings reveals colours hidden within; handstand artist Nick van der Heyden takes inspiration from Bosch’s most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, as he moves from light, to temptation, to darkness in 30 minute piece Project JB; duo Cie Helaba take similar inspiration but, focusing on just a single panel from the painted triptych, reimagine a modern Adam and Eve in I Ate The Entire Fruit Salad with acro dance and aerial straps.
Sous le Toile de Jheronimus, from Les Colporteurs, translates as ‘under the canvas of Jheronimus’, referencing the material connection between painters and circus performers. Inside their pinnacled white tent, itself like something from a fantasy tale, they unfold their ‘free interpretation’ of images from Bosch’s painted oak panels. Traveling from the outer panels, where a creator-observer overlooks the globe of his world, the piece progresses through the painted scenes from left to right as the western eye does – individual innocence becomes recognition of others, becomes enjoyment of others, becomes hedonistic thrill seeking, becomes torturous excess. Knowing the painting, there is no surprise to the trajectory the material takes, but there are some novelties in the way equipment is employed to convey us through.
Above the ring, arching perspex catwalks link the four king poles of the tent. For the most part, these are the territory of Coline Rigot, daughter of company founders Agathe Olivier and Antoine Rigot. She plays the violin, its tone moving from ecclesiastic to anguished in keeping with the action playing out amongst her fellows. As social, sexual and spatial boundaries are pushed and broken throughout the course of the performance, so too are the boundaries between earth, air and the places between. One constant is wire walker Olivier, appearing each time an invisible line in behaviour is crossed, to pass sedately from one side of the ring to the other. While the rest of the cast are dressed simply, like medieval peasantry, she is elaborately decorated, different for each appearance, balancing a branch of dangling birds or hanging apples on her head, or pregnant with a fishbowl belly in which real goldfish swim (kudos to costume designers Hanna Sjodin and Frédéricka Hayter).
The wire is rigged and de-rigged in a snap as an effective part of the overall tones and rhythms of the onstage action, but becomes most exciting when held in place to provide a link to a central swinging trapeze, allowing Gilles Charles Messance and Julien Lambert to work between the two. Two symmetrically set Chinese poles complete the mise en scène. Lisa Lou Oedegaard has a lovely flow to the unusual contacts she uses on the pole, building them into climbs and drops that fit the absurd world Sous le Toile… has created, even if they communicate nothing deeper about the theme. Later though, she and Anatole Couëty tease and taunt across each other’s backs and faces in a physical enactment of seduction, co-dependency and mind-games, where consent is flimsy. It’s an effectively disturbing sequence and, the closer the show moves to its chaotic constructions of Bosch’s Hell, the stronger its representations.
Whilst there is humour in the piece, it sneaks by in flashes of Orianne Bernard‘s dark clown, or Messance’s Hitler impressions. For all the demonic lighting, clanging set, deconstructed piano crashing and screeching (Antoine Berland, superbly inventive in his playing throughout), angle-grinding, glass spitting, hollering and smokey incense that capture the atmosphere of the final painted panel so accurately, it seems a shame that the frivolity and lightness of the earlier panels weren’t reflected with equal impact on the senses.
Taking a different approach, the 7 Fingers production of Bosch Dreams (co-produced with Danish theatre Republique) draws heavily on the verdant imagery of the central panel of Bosch’s triptych. Moreover, other paintings from his canon – and their controversies over attribution – are also present in an entertaining, amusing and beautiful art appreciation lesson. Six multi-role playing performers are joined by living projections of Bosch’s imagination, animations conceived and created by Ange Potier, which play across gauzes and screens to build an interactive 3D environment on the traditional theatre stage. The production has been touring Europe, and I caught the show at the Stadstheater in Arnhem.
Bosch is lying in bed, fitfully sleeping, apparently close to death. A professor (William Underwood) teaches his students about the works of his favourite painter, and prepares the speech that he’s been invited to present at the 500th anniversary conference in Holland. Jim Morrison dies in the bath, hallucinating images from his Ship of Fools muse. Salvador Dalí strolls through an art gallery, suddenly taken by the surrealism presented before him. Skipping through each other’s interlocking subliminal explorations is the figure of the professor’s daughter, Julia. Is she bringing Bosch dreams of the future? Is this all in the mind of the modern day professor looking back? What’s clear is the connecting influence of Bosch’s work throughout generations of artists and thinkers.
Figures, creatures, buildings and landscapes from The Garden of Earthly Delights move around in relation to each other in Potier’s projections, creating a dynamic, evolving, and authentic world. Elements from the stage picture are added to the imagery, and details of handstands and elevated posturing become flesh in the circus skills of the ensemble onstage.
In this last production before his death, Martin Tulinius and 7 Fingers founding member Samuel Tétrault have directed the spectacular feats their cast are capable of with refined restraint that balances against the spectacle of Bosch’s own works. Vignettes from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, which spins like a giant wheel of fortune, are brought to life through mime characterisation and fantasy masks (also designed by Potier from the beasts of Bosch’s imagination, and created by Karin Ørum). Scenes from The Conjurer and The Extraction of the Stone of Madness are combined, leading to the discovery that the patient (Jorge Petit), having had a hole cut in his head, can now juggle eggs off the floor.
Sunniva Løvland Byvard is a hand-balancing ‘nude’ inside a soap bubble, encountered by Dali (Petit) on his subconscious journeying. Mattias Umaerus is Jim Morrison, caught inside the circular keyfob that was brought to our attention earlier in the Professor’s lecture, seducing Héloïse Bourgeois in an aerial duet that hangs between two worlds. Julia (Evelyne Lamontagne) creates currents of air with her dance trapeze that send dozens of red balloons haphazardly dancing around a lush green clearing.
Finally, we are confronted with the nightmarish side of Bosch’s work, as a television broadcast delivers news of the war in Syria, and elements of the painter’s various Hell’s are combined to create a space where vertical ropes, Chinese poles and balance beams invoke a burning city. The human concerns and experiences of the painter’s characters still relevant to us 500 years on.
Bosch Dreams is a very special production, not only commemorating a great artist, but drawing together a web of connections that allow us to relate to his work and its influence across timeless levels. Added to that, it’s gorgeous. There is a surprising amount of English in the show, given its provenance, but the script helps us understand the paintings – literally brought to life before our eyes – and fuels an excitement around the painter and a desire to learn more about his work.