Review: Circa at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 9 - 14 March 2010
Reviewed by Sam Gauntlett - Friday 12 March 2010

Circa, Barbican Theatre, 9 - 14 March 2010

As though he has fallen from the sky, a man lands, face down in a spotlight, and opens the performance with a routine that involves picking himself up and throwing himself back on the floor again, his grotesque jerky limbs speaking of struggle. There are seven performers in Circa and they all act out similar phrases as if demonstrating the very gravity they will later defy in fearless stunts and displays of gymnastic prowess.

Circa is the name of the company and also the piece, which showcases both the individual talents of the performers and the heart-stopping trust they place in one another, enabling them to execute the most risky physical challenges I have ever seen take place on a proscenium stage.

The show contains elements of traditional circus performance: tumbling gymnastics, aerialists, “hoopers” and even some aspects of clowning, but the contemporary music, thematic exploration and atmospheric lighting give this a very different feel, placing the performance somewhere between circus and dance theatre.

In moments when the majority of the group are on stage, the performers, working in trios and duos become shapes, not separate bodies. They balance on top of one another (at one point one man, with another on his shoulders, with another on top of his!), throw each other high into the air and manipulate each other, whether through a gentle poke or pull, or even a strong tug at the hair. Their instinctual responses to each other’s bodies are almost sexual and a memorable “fetishistic” routine where a woman in “Dorothy” sparkling red heels, walks all over a semi-comatose man, prompts a series of sharp intakes of breath from the audience, especially when her spiky heel gravitates dangerously close to his crotch.

In a transfixing trapeze duet, a man stands on a woman’s shoulders to reach the handle, then they explore different ways of balancing on it without swinging, whilst a soundtrack of deafening white noise and interference adds to the unease. He balances on his head whilst she hangs from his hands, then when she jumps down, he remains and stays precariously on his head alone, with legs extended above.

The music moves from drum and bass to more calming acoustic interludes, the stage bathed in dappled shadow, and following a particularly dramatic sequence, a man stands in silence, contemplating his fingers – and the audience – with a comical expression. After a sustained suspense, he begins to click, one hand at a time, marking a slow rhythm. He invites the audience to join in, and then unexpectedly misses a beat, catching us out. He transfixes us with his dexterous fingers, fanning them like a flamenco artist and eventually ending with his fingers descending to the ground and smoothly lifting his body into a handstand, his weight on just four fingers.

In another less frenetic episode, a woman using a hoop with a circumference smaller than the width of her shoulders, squeezes her whole body through it foot first, and then decides to try it starting with her backside, prompting laughter from the audience. Another “hoopist” spins seven hoops up and down her body, picking one up at a time with her feet, whilst regarding the audience with a nonchalant expression.

It is this light and shade that colours Circa; the dynamism of the group work and the strength of each individual’s character, that keeps us enthralled to the end.

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