Joining their congregation to worship at the Parisian shrine of Cirque Alfonse, Mark Fisher has a religious vision at Tabarnak that turns out to be more than the Quebec company intended
Say what you like about Jesus, but he never did acrobatics on the cross. Nor, for that matter, did the fallen angels tumble from heaven on the end of a rope. And I bet you've never seen a priest spinning two chain censers at high velocity into the air. In the world of Quebec's Cirque Alfonse, however, this is all part of the ecclesiastical show. That and a bishop blowing up a condom to form a mitre, a human tower mirroring the shape of a stained-glass window, and a baptism that's not far off water torture.
Correction: this is what I believe I saw in the company's Tabarnak on its recent run in Paris. Belief is a fickle thing, however, and perhaps I was suffering from the warped vision of a lapsed Catholic. Was I just seeing things? If so, I'm not the only one. People remark on such symbolism all the time, says founder member Antoine Carabinier Lépine, but half of it was accidental. 'It's funny because there are so many pictures that we didn't think about when we were creating it,' he says, the morning after the show. 'There's a lot of opportunity for the audience to create their own pictures. But, for sure, it's fascinating how many pictures you can make from the church because there are so many symbols.'
With its latest homespun spectacle of big beards and bigger feats of gymnastic daring, the company that brought us the 'electro trad cabaret' of Barbu in 2015 has switched tone for a slow-burning service of French-Canadian folk and community bonding. The religious theme is less to do with god than the church's cultural role within this province. 'In Quebec, the church used to be really strong,' says Carabinier Lépine who performs alongside his partner, a sister and extended family in the close-knit company. 'It's still a big symbol but now church halls are used for bingo, wrestling matches and bazaars, while the main church spaces are empty.'
credit: Guillaume Morin
Careful to avoid cultural caricature, the show alludes to such Canadian essentials as snow shoes, roller skates and hockey sticks as the scene moves from basement jumble sale to social barn dance. 'We are atheist and didn't grow up with the church apart from going to mass at Christmas, but we still feel that Quebec was strongly religious before,' Carabinier Lépine says. 'In every small village, the church was the centre point. The show is about what makes people feel good to be together and sing together. Normally in circus shows, you have solos so you can rest, but this is a group act with all of us together. It's more tiring because you don't have any breaks, but it's a nice group feeling and keeps us in the same mood and it matches the theme of bringing people together.'
There is one provocation, however. The word 'tabarnak' in Quebecois French is the rudest of the rude. A literal translation is merely 'tabernacle' (the box that contains the Eucharist), but on the streets of Montreal, where swearing draws on Catholic liturgy, it is like the c-word and f-word combined. 'It's the worst swear word you can say in Quebec,' Carabinier Lépine laughs. 'We thought it'd be nice to have a word that represented Quebec and the church at the same time.'
It says something for Cirque Alfonse's innocent intent that it has skirted controversy. The show even made its debut in a local church, aided by the priest. 'He wasn't offended but his superior was really worried about it. The most offensive thing is the title. We're not trashing religion. At the end of the show everyone feels together whatever religion you are.'
What's especially attractive about the company is their lack of glamour. When the show starts they're lolling around on stage doing their knitting. They catch the audience in the eye and make no pretence at showbiz mystery. Hirsute and stocky – albeit uncommonly muscular – they are quite unlike the svelte performers of glitzier circuses. Recognising fellow human beings, we root for them all the more. 'We try to be ourselves,' says Carabinier Lépine. 'We don't play roles. We're not actors, we're acrobats. It feels more natural to be ourselves. We're talking about Quebec people: we are Quebec people and we are what we are.'
Underbelly and Cirque Alfonse
A celebration of Heaven and Hell and everything in between! Cirque Alfonse, the creators that brought you the five-star, Fringe 2015 sell-out hit Barbu, return with a brand-new show. Daring, raucous, eccentric and downright fun, Tabarnak combines edge-of-your-seat circus with crazy cabaret…