Circus Special: Driftwood; Throwback; Grace; Perhaps Hope

Matt Trueman reviews: Driftwood (4 stars) | Silver Lining and Jacksons Lane: Throwback (3 stars) | Grace (3 stars) | Perhaps Hope (3 stars)

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Published 14 Aug 2016

How does circus make meaning? There are, after all, only so many ways you can dive head first down a Chinese pole or stand tall on someone’s shoulders. Watch a lot and you see the same feats on repeat; but a limited vocabulary doesn’t prevent variety.

Without saying a word, Driftwood rings clear. It’s in the glide of bodies; the way that each move grows into the next. Jesse Scott finds peace, upside down, on a swinging trapeze. Kali Retallack spins circles in and out of a hoop, lazy as a lie-in. Natano Fa’anana meditates his way into a muscular dance. Pairs mirror one another, neither seeming to lead. They clamber over each other, like kids at play. Everything goes with the flow: driftwood on the currents of life.

It’s a gorgeous watch; circus you sink into. Returning three years after their Fringe hit, Knee Deep, Australia’s Casus bring the same skill to Driftwood and wring real tone from it. A company of all-rounders, they spring surprises without showing off. This is a contented sigh of a show, one that washes over you like life’s lazy days. Yet there’s risk and invention too – the odd thing you’ve never seen. Lachlan McAulay perches on a pole balanced on Scott’s forehead; a kid in a treetop, surveying the world.

Throwback harks back to those moments: the freedoms of childhood. Young Brits Silver Lining offer up a carnival of nostalgia. For my generation, the first bursts of B*Witched (“Ah Ohh. Ah Ohh.”) are all it takes to turn back time. Each of the six performers pick their madeleines and play out their past. Puckish Tom Ball goes full Peter Pan on the trapeze, while Ulrike Storch, juggling umbrellas with her toes, recalls the time kids spend solo, playing alone, perfectly happy, in their bedrooms.

It’s a throwback in another way, though: an old-school set, one act after another. Spoken intros do a lot of the legwork, where routines might speak for themselves, and too often it tips out a party trick. A couple of adult memories muddy the meaning and, boy, is it eager to please. At times, it goes all-out Live & Kicking—smiley as Saturday morning kids’ TV—but the same Tiggerish exuberance is ultimately infectious. Resistance is futile. Childhood joy kicks back in.

Memory’s at the heart of Grace, too. In Emma Serjeant’s solo show, a woman tries to piece herself back together. Head in her phone, words ringing in her ears, one eye on a fit bloke across the street, Grace stepped out into the road. Against a screech of brakes, Serjeant’s body buckles. She flips a no-handed somersault and lands smack on her back. Getting up, her legs give way. She rolls into a twist on the floor. “Who am I?” she asks.

Every piece of equipment seeks an answer to that – and the person Grace gradually remembers isn’t all that. She builds a tower out of bottles and climbs to the top, flosses her face with a balloon, and hangs limp in the air as the room seems to spin. A party animal on the hunt for new thrills, she pings between disciplines, restless and wild.

Handbalancing, Serjeant’s speciality, provides the counterpoint. The nine canes stand for the pillars of her life—motherhood, photographer, wife—and, if they sometimes seem like a cage, it’s on them that she finds stillness, focus and control. Grace, even.

If it’s unshowy, Grace is intricately composed; a piece that pushes against the frenetic pace of modern life and asks what it will take to slow us back down.

Perhaps Hope asks the same question in terms of climate change. Behind Rockie Stone and Vincent van Berkel, a metal sculpture moves like a metronome, ticking off the seconds. Elegant and insistent, it’s a piece built out of tipping points. Their human towers are top-heavy; their balances, on edge. Stone tiptoes, precariously, on the tops of green bottles and her tower, higher than Serjeant’s, looks too fragile to hold a human.

If it’s lacking a level of invention, Perhaps Hope makes the most of its objects. A curve of wood becomes a see-saw that threatens to overturn and a raft tossed around in a flooded world. On it, Stone and van Berkel cling to one another, rearranging themselves in each other’s arms. Elsewhere, they find their own spaces – him, focused on balance; her, dancing in headphones.

Over its hour, Perhaps Hope decays. As Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ blurs and distorts through repetition, their hand-to-hand routines do the same. It’s a strong metaphor, but it winds the show down, not up. A shame: it could so easily go the other way, overloading and overstretching to find meaning in failure. On climate change, like circus performers, we have to keep trying and trying in the face of apparent impossibility. It’s not enough to just go with the flow.