Caoilinn Hughes - Theatreview
Being a circus aficionado, when I approached the Ronaldo's Circenses circus tent last night, I could sense that something was different, and not just the season. (And boy did summer shut us out like a teenager's slammed door last night.)
The sardonic expression of the painted figure holding up the Circenses sign on the tent's entrance looked commiserating. What was he trying to tell me, with those weary, wonderful eyes?
I expected a high quality, authentic European circus with lush red velvets, heady sawdust, hemorrhaging candles, uncomfortably packed pews, curly-haired, bosom-laden women, mustachioed, tight-panted men, dizzying acrobatics, dilapidated musicians, demoralizing clowns, the pangs of animal cruelty concerns, the perfume of gasoline, animal ordure, talcum powder, sweat, tears, whiplash, popcorn...
And most of these traditional circus features were present, but Circenses is not traditional, once-a-year circus. Not having any pre-conceived ideas or too much knowledge about the troupe is the way to experience this performance, so if you are thinking about attending, stop thinking. STOPREADING. Go and buy your tickets, if there are any left.
For me, there is the satisfying realisation that some kind of deviation of tradition is taking place. (My partner was less sure of the deviation, having never attended a circus before). It isn't anything contrived or with any obvious agenda, or anything you can immediately put your finger on. There is a natural theatricality that goes beyond showmanship in Circenses. Theatricality or theatre? Tongue in cheek or cheek in tongue? The snakes aren't real! The guns go bang, but is it with gunpowder or sherbet? The axes are thrown, but sometimes they miss! Women gasp "Crikey! Should that have happened?" behind me. Is this circus satire? Whatever it is, I love it!
The gypsy musicianship on piano-accordion by David Van Keer, alto saxophone, drums, cello and voice by Rachel Ponsonby, and the other cast members who multi-task with various instruments is a night's entertainment in and of itself. The music makes me giddy as a kid (human variety, who this is also suitable for by the way, perhaps 8-10+)! There are some moments of mind-blowing customary circus performances, like Kimi Hartmann's tightrope-walking and acrobatics on the set's wonderful colossal chandelier; Nathalie Kuik's knife-throwing and wonderfully authentic gypsy demeanour; and Danny Ronaldo's clownery.
A member of the sixth generation of the family, Danny grows on me progressively throughout the show, which is entirely fitting for the tragic, accidentally talented, impossibly-infatuated Character Clown. His shoes and suit are large and messy, but he is not white-faced or red-nosed, which reflects the fact that he is an important character in the theatre of Circenses (despite caricaturing a typically low-status clown).
He also plays on the Commedia Del'Arte tradition, which runs subtly throughout the show, as an Arlecchino character: nimble and adept while being clumsy and dim; in love with the Columbina-like tightrope-walker; a ‘maid' to the traditional circus agenda perhaps. With a touch of Mr. Bean at times, Danny Ronaldo's clown epitomises the spirit of Circenses. Accidentally complex. Purposefully and powerfully simple.
Circus Ronaldo's website warns that the show "does not present audiences with a reconstruction of early circus or early comedy. [… It] is not an imitation of a circus or a symptom of the age. It is not an idea that was thought out on paper and is now being put into practice. Circus Ronaldo is Circus Ronaldo, pure and simple." They feel they have to state this, perhaps, because it is easy to read layers into the performance conceptually. This is a good thing, whether they intend it or not. They do allow us to read into its narrative, however:
"This is the first time that three generations of the Ronaldo family will be together in the spotlights. […] The last generation pulls the past along behind it... death, which was already leading the way at the start. Beneath the waves of laughter we have come to expect from Circus Ronaldo there is a recurrent melancholy undertone, because circus is like life... everything perishes, and exists only briefly." And so the youngest member of the family, Pepijn Ronaldo, charms the audience backstage (in the first half of the show, you see the show itself upfront, and in the second half, you see backstage—or the other way around) by attempting all the tricks his elders have mastered.
In a gorgeous parallel of the circus' real-life history, Pepijn is reminiscent of Adolf Peter Vandenberghe, who was born in 1827 and ran away from home at the age of fifteen to join the circus. Starting off as a groom, Adolf worked his way up and became one of the best acrobats of his age. So too do we get the feeling that Pepijn will work his way up in the circus. His ambition is clear at the show's end, when he attempts to pull death along by a rope. Is the fact that he fails indicative that the family circus must die off at some point? Or that they are attempting to resuscitate a dead tradition? Or that the boy is still a groom: not yet ready to enter the arena?
My only fear is that Pepijn's acting abilities are such that he may be pulled away from Ronaldo's Circus… but perhaps there is enough theatre there for him. Perhaps there will be more, as Ronaldo's circus adapts and alters with the ages.