Friday, 23 March 2012

Circus Tricks, Tete a Tete, Riverside Studios

There's a sequence towards the mind-numbingly violent conclusion of Michael Haneke's Funny Games in which  the mother of a family, tortured by a pair of sadistic killers, shoots one of them. The other disarms her - and then, in a surreal but horrific twist, takes a TV remote and rewinds the very film that they're all in. Thus the hopeless scene plays out again without even the catharsis of revenge.

Now, Circus Tricks is no horror show but there is a deflating sequence towards the end which involves the rewinding of one character's solipsistic version of events. It's a clever little moment - staged in a not dissimilar fashion to an identical rewind in the Royal Opera's recent Miss Fortune - but the sense of disappointment that comes with it betrays the laboured path that the opera had taken. This is partly to do with the format: each character sings about their act in similarly technical vernacular and then this is inventory is repeated in the second half of the opera. It's (formally) reminiscent of the choral dances in Britten's Death In Venice, a ballet of beach games in which it quickly becomes apparent that each event is going to be described in an embarrassing action-as-poetry argot by the chorus.

Unlike Circus Tricks, the sequence of five events takes less than five minutes, has its own characterised subtext and a dramatic consequence.

Circus Tricks isn't a bad idea by any means. I liked the context and the characters. The set and costumes are competently designed. There's room for drama with all sorts of relationships hinted at from the start. Michael Henry's music is good - possibly a little anonymous but never simply selling out to pastiche. The Chroma ensemble sextet under Gerry Cornelius play the music with unity of tone and purpose (and no little stamina, I'd imagine). The cast sing it very well, particularly Lilly Papaioannou's enticingly languid, 'mysterious' Contortionist, the elastic coloratura of Yvette Bonner's Trapeze Artist and the peculiar falsett of Daniel Keating-Roberts' Acrobat Tom, the only strain in his voice being pertinent to his boozing character.

All this well-intentioned indutry is for nothing is the drama lacks a third dimension. This is promised in the rather informal opening as the characters lounge around the space, waiting to rehearse and perform. But with the exception of a lovely vignette in which the Trapeze Artist and the Trick Pony (brilliantly played throughout by Christopher Diffey) indulge a relationship unrelated to their work there is little interaction, ultimately prevented entirely by the performance set pieces. There is a also a remarkable lack of humour, with one consciously inserted joke (concerning traffic cones) taking most of its impact from the incongruity one associates from encountering a Tourettes sufferer.

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