Guy Somerset - NZ Listener
Imagine, if you will, Captain Beefheart running a circus.
Festival audiences have become accustomed to circuses’ increasingly outlandish attempts to reinvent the wheel (and then use the wheel as a prop in some spectacular stunt). Belgium’s Circus Ronaldo have their own twist – mixing theatre and circus – but it’s one that’s a return to the family’s early 19th-century beginnings in the circus game and that values intimacy and ingenuity over the scale that’s come to dominate elsewhere. Theirs is a big top, but not that big.
Those entering the big top are, according to the “left” or “right” on their tickets, sent either to the front of the ring to watch the performance or backstage to watch the clock workings (although this is a company that could never be accused of running like clockwork). In the second half, the audiences switch for what will start out as the same production but then descend into even more organised chaos.
Out front for the first half and hearing the laughter from backstage, you might wonder whether you’re destined to be Woody Allen on the wrong, glum train in Stardust Memories, but both these trains are great fun, each providing an explanation or punchline for what goes on in the other.
Presiding over the chaos is Karel Creemers’s lank-haired, lascivious ringmaster, barking only occasionally comprehensible commentary through a loudhailer, looking like Captain Beefheart and sounding like a crazed outtake from Trout Mask Replica.
Captain Beefheart running a circus – that just about sums up the night. And running it with a drunken ineptitude that could only be born of – in reality, out of character – immensely skilled precision. Professionals feigning unprofessionalism is the conceit of the entire company, amply able to perform their tricks – juggling, sword-eating or knife-throwing – but leaving you uncertain as to when they will do so and when they’ll cock them up.
Under the circumstances, throwing knives at first a thin rag doll and then a fatter one seems a reasonable precaution – but then a living, breathing male member (and indeed male’s member) of the company gets in the way …
Actual ringmaster (or at least creative director) Danny Ronaldo’s clown is the comic heart of the night, poignant in both his failed tricks and his lovelorn looks at winsome, dimpled, blonde beauty Kimi Hartmann.
Knives aside, these two provide the night’s biggest thrills, whether walking a tightrope or hanging from the chandelier that looms large above the ring.
That walking a short tightrope or hanging from a chandelier could provide such a sense of jeopardy and acrobatic accomplishment – much more so than Frenchmen Les Philebulistes managed with their giant twin bicycle wheels at the beginning of the International Arts Festival – just goes to show how even in the age of CGI simple skill, wit and ingenuity can win out.
Backstage comedy is led by the magnificently moustached, bulldog-like Luk D’Heu – the hapless Homo Electric among other highlights – and young Pepijn Ronaldo’s malevolent mischief-maker.
Some of the worst of that mischief involves fire. At the beginning of the night, as you take your place on the cramped benches (where the most impressive trick the company looks like achieving is getting you all seated), and try to avoid what you rightly surmise with be the perilous, audience-participation-heavy front row, circus hands brandish no smoking signs and you think, “But of course”, given all the sawdust on the floor. It’s pretty soon after this that the fire jugglers come out.
Back home, the next morning, I couldn’t figure out what all the white flaky stuff was on my carpets. Then I realised. Sawdust off my shoes. We could all do with some of that sawdust in our lives.
CIRCENSES, Circus Ronaldo, Waitangi Park, Wellington, until March 18, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.