“Everything is not always as it seems” – so runs the blurb for this show by the experimental circus collective Circumference. I would have done well, perhaps, to pay more heed to this wink and nod: maybe I wouldn’t have been left feeling quite so cheated.
The show, at first appearances, is a non-verbal narrative involving three performers on a large wooden platform suspended by ropes from the ceiling. As the audience entered, the image that greeted us was incredibly raw and stark: the two female performers lay sprawled on the decking, one crumpled and facing away from us, the other lying flat on her back, staring out glassily over the audience as the male performer stood on her head. All three performers were in underwear. It was an incredibly powerful image, but one that was not explored until what I shall call “the disruption”. It was both the central focus of the performance, and totally irrelevant.
The first part of Staged is an impressive, theatrical and physical display from the three performers on the precarious platform. There were moments of real beauty and daring, such as a balance sequence, initially performed with the smallest member of the cast as the flyer (the person being lifted), then performed again with the largest member of the cast – the male performer – taking her role. This was a thought provoking and physically very extraordinary moment, with the resilience and determination of the cast proving that the body you are in does not necessarily have to dictate how you relate to others in space. The smallest and lightest person does not necessarily have to be the flyer, because she also contains the strength and determination to be the base. It was beautiful, and I commend the performers enormously for this unusual and inspiring moment.
Then comes “the disruption”: a technical fault plunges the stage into darkness and silence. The house lights come up, the performers apologise profusely in small and breathless voices. Whilst we wait, we are taken through a kind of meditation process, led by one of the performers. We are encouraged to close our eyes, to listen to the noises of the room. This was a pleasant and unexpected moment of connection, and when the performers resumed from where they left off there was a reinvigorated sense of energy in the space, the body of the audience connected to and willing on the bodies of the performers. However this connection was short-lived, as the tech fails again. This time the performers come forward and suggest an impromptu Q&A whilst we wait for the technical faults to be sorted out.
After a few initial questions from braver members of the audience – where did you train, where do you keep that platform when you’re not using it – a heated discussion springs up seemingly out of nowhere with a brash American voice announcing that “no-one else is going to say it” so she might as well. She takes us back to the opening image of the show – which I repeat has been totally irrelevant up until this moment – rather crudely refers to the current climate regarding sexual harassment cases, and tops this off with a reference to the race of the male performer. This escalates into a row, the woman makes as if to leave, then comes back and pulls what may or may not be a script out of her bag. She starts correcting another member of the audience, with whom the argument has primarily been, on his “lines”, and ends with the announcement that “in three, two, one, the technician will walk through that door!” When no technician appears “or I’ll just look like a crazy person!” she exclaims and sits back down.
That’s the problem: she does look like a crazy person, and every single member of that audience was so concerned with working out whether she was in fact a crazy person that no-one was able to listen to any of the content that presumably we were supposed to be engaging with at this point. Questions of race and gender in performance, and the world more generally, questions of what the responsibility of an audience is were totally lost in the miasma of confusion and concern. A woman next to me whispered that she wanted to leave, and looked genuinely anxious. The show then continued, with the performers resuming their physical roles and with overlaid voiceovers repeating snatches of the conversation that had just gone before. Oh, clever – the whole thing had been STAGED. The ground shifted from under our feet just as it had been shifting under the feet of the performers.
It seems to link, but something about this show just doesn’t compute. It’s all so disjointed: the first image doesn’t travel through the show until it is brought up in the disruption, which makes the actual circus performances that sandwich the disruption seem totally irrelevant. The throwing about of popular, faux-woke politics in trashy soundbites utterly undermined the physical work that had been done and from which real meaning and message could have been gleaned. The glorious became the mundane, the trick of the show is at the expense of this show and, for me, it was not a price worth paying. It is certainly an unusual production with some moments of real excellence in the physical performances, but the gimmick of the staged argument really lets this show down.