Sunday, March 26, 2006

Stage Presence #2

"Nights At The Circus" by Angela Carter
Adapted by Tom Morris & Emma Rice
Bristol Old Vic Theatre, 25/03/06
It's 1899 and Europe eagerly anticipates the coming of the new century, none more so than vaudeville, and especially sensational trapeze artist Fevvers. As the name suggests, Fevvers has wings, but are they real or just another illusion to mask the harsh reality of circus life? Cynical New York Times journalist Walser is determined to prove the latter and finds himself on a inexorable journey toward discovery, liberation... and love.

I'm a belated fan of Angela Carter and have so far read only three novels: Shadow Dance, The Magic Toyshop, both from the late 1960s, and 1977's The Passion of New Eve. All of these feature Carter's characteristic approach of investigating - and challenging - sexual identity and so I expected much the same from this adaptation of her 1984 novel. Tom Morris and Emma Rice have inevitably pruned Carter's original work for the stage, occasionally at the expense of narrative cohesion and characterisation. However, Kneehigh's energetic - and often cheeky - production guarantees that the end result makes up for any potential criticisms that this somehow 'isn't Angela Carter'.

The play gets off to a cracking start as a female singer in top hat-and-tails drag (ex-Casualty star Adjoa Andoh) sings a Dietrich-esque ditty called "Die, Century, Die". As she departs, the spotlight is immediately thrown on Gisli Om Gardasson's world-weary reporter Walser, who has secreted himself in the front row of the stalls. As he continues to make wisecracks, a gesturing arm poking through the stage curtain accuses, admonishes then invites him onto the stage. Walser is then overwhelmed by the chorus (played to camp comic effect by Carl Grosse, Amanda Lawrence, Andy Williams and Ed Woodall), mincing around the stage in their gowns and ill-fitting Y-fronts. Walser's subsequent - and forcible - eviction by the chorus via the stalls is interrupted by Fevvers' appearance on the trapeze. Immediately, both characters and audience are captivated by the sight of the winged performer singing "I'm Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage". From this point on, Walser is inexorably drawn towards Fevvers, though his path is obstructed by humiliation and danger.

The production tackles a number of challenging aspects of the narrative in highly inventive ways, not least the Siberian circus sequences, with wild tigers conveyed by flame-filled buckets and scraping handsaws. The minimal sets are also effective, with backdrops solely consisting of curtains and frequently exposing the usually hidden backstage area. In many ways, this helps to create the illusion of a working circus, with lots of activity on the periphery whilst the 'main performance' is taking place. A musician sitting sidestage throughout also provides a great foil for the hapless Walser, who becomes increasingly frustrated by his fellow's inability to notice to the series of bizarre events occurring before their eyes. As expected in Carter's work - and indeed, circus stories in general - the dark underbelly is revealed, most horrifically through Ed Woodall's performance as Boffo The Clown. Up to this point, the audience have automatically applauded each musical performance. However, in a jaw-dropping number, Boffo waxes lyrical about his wife-beating, as he enacts this abuse upon his frail, bruised partner (played to great effect by Amanda Lawrence). Another sinister turn is provided by Andy Williams as The Colonel, a man possessing "diamonds that could make you shit" and an avid collector of wings, who has become obsessed with Fevvers' own unique enhancements. Yet, humour is ever present to balance this, particualrly in Fevvers' guardian Lizzie - in typical gender-challenging fashion played by Carl Grosse - whose loathing of the opposite sex manifests itself in her habitually pissing into men's socks.

The play does suffer from being overly long, particularly in the first half, but the actors make every effort to keep things moving at an attention-grabbing pace. My only other criticism would be that the necessary filleting of the original novel has removed some of the guts of the lead characters. Although the performances by Natalia Tena and Gisli Orn Gardasson as Fevvers and Walser respectively are strong, it feels that there's not enough substance in the script to elevate their characters from likeable to people that the audience can truly empathise with. However, this is a small niggle at what is otherwise an imaginative and entertaining production. An added bonus is that it will make you want to seek out Angela Carter's original work, which can only be a good thing.
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