CircusFest promises experimental contemporary theatre, No Show delivers on that promise. It defies neat categorisation, being in equal parts a performance, rehearsal, and educational lecture series. It is a deconstruction of a performance, laying bare the structure behind the spectacle in a surprising and pin-sharp show.
The show begins in bold Brechtian style, with one of the five female performers – Francesca Hyde – walking onto the stage with an accordion. Wearing a humbug striped leotard and pale fishnet tights, she holds the audience’s gaze and attention in an extended moment of silence, tracking along the rows of the spectators as if counting us, as if she was here to see us rather than the other way around. Those who came to look become the objects of attention in an uncomfortable and thought-provoking reversal of roles. This powerful motif is repeated several times through the show by the different performers: sometimes one performer stands, looking out, at other times all five performers are arranged in a line, watching the audience. One of the best moments of the show comes in one of these Brechtian, watching episodes, when each performer takes a doughnut from a bag – made of the same material as their tight, short costumes – and in complete silence the five women proceed to eat, looking out at the audience the whole time, challenging judgment, defying expectation. This scrutiny of the audience from the stage somehow levels out a disparity between spectators and spectacle that had never been apparent to me before, creating an unusual kind of equality in which the audience becomes complicit in the creation of this remarkable piece.
The relationship between the performers is hard to define, and changes from episode to episode. Exquisite hand-balancer Alice Gilmartin makes several attempts to begin a speech to the audience, and is quickly shut up by her colleagues. This escalates each time, until we witness Alice forcibly manhandled onto the canes by all four of her fellow performers is a choreographed mess of grabbing and twisting that trips a very fine line between humorous and horrible. She is asked to perform in a pastiche of what all these women must have experienced – smile more, flick your hair, keep it sexy – and there is something both very powerful and very odd about this experience being inflicted on her by her cast-mates. Lisa Chudalla performs in the Cyr wheel, accompanied by Kate McWilliam giving an explanation of the injuries that could be incurred by Lisa in the event of a mishap. The deadpan style works well with the macabre humour, but the impact of this section is slightly lost in a rattling escalation of injuries possible for both performer and audience that isn’t quite delivered. It’s very clever, though: when Lisa returns to give a quite beautiful routine in the wheel, I found myself thinking of the breakable bones behind that beauty. Kate returns in one of the highlights of the show, giving a matter-of-fact explanation of her time as a professional gymnast on a TV programme and the disparity between what the girls were asked to do – stretch and smile – and what was required of the boys – tumbles and tricks. The speech was split up with demonstrations of Kate’s remarkable acrobatic tumbling abilities, clearly showing the irony and injustice of limiting her performance to doing the splits.
Whilst these elements of the show feel clear in what they are demonstrating, others are more ambiguous. Francesca Hyde returns in a virtuosic display of hair-hanging – not something I had ever thought would be physically possible. It’s weird, elegant and clearly very painful, but what exactly it contributes to the overall narrative or theme of the show is unclear. Perhaps its unconventionality moves it away from the more traditional image of the aerialist as delicate floating creature and challenges the audience to understand the physical pain-endurance test that is central to circus arts. Michelle Ross is the only performer who does not get to show off her “best trick” in the show, as her best trick is on the trapeze. She walks us through what the trick would be, however, humorously encouraging the audience to use their imagination. After this she explodes into a kind of contemporary dance, accompanied by Francesca on the accordion, showing the strength and skill we had been encouraged to imagine a moment before. Again, whilst expertly performed and visually engaging work, it is not entirely clear what is being said here in this piece that is rooted in making a statement.
No Show is a thought-provoking spectacle with virtuosic performances. It is daring, defiant and totally unconventional: a show very much worth seeing.
No Show runs until Sunday 22nd April