Bringing Circus Back
Only Bones and Elixir: from Avignon to the heart of the Fringe
This article is from 2016.
The revival of circus at the Edinburgh Fringe – from the creation of the Circus Hub as part of Underbelly's portfolio of venues to the inclusion of more intimate shows in venues like Summerhall – reflects an international trend towards the incorporation of circus skills into theatre and dance.
With Elixir and Only Bones, both arriving fresh from the Avignon festival, the extremes of contemporary circus are represented at this year's Fringe. Elixir has a populist energy, a simple and clear narrative and plenty of dynamic set-pieces. Only Bones offers a smaller scale and precise 'body manipulation', in which a single performer displays an incredible ability to use his physique as if it were a puppet, forming weird and entrancing shapes.
Thomas Gorham, performer and director of Elixir, champions an accessible and humorous approach, against what he calls the 'deep and meaningless' style. 'The current circus trend is to present a show that has an absence of narrative, often only the performer themselves has any idea of the story or meaning to the work, the rest is left up the individual audience member,' he says. 'We are going against this trend, our show is a fully narrative and action-packed hour.'
Taking cues from the fashionable enthusiasm for zombies, Elixir rapidly explains its premise of three men attempting to find a cure for a virus, then rapidly reveals the skills of the cast. Referencing popular culture, including a sequence taken from Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video, it is a spectacular hour, trading on bold tricks and the physical beauty of the men. Characterisation is revealed within the routines: Gorham himself comes across as a sensible leader, attempting to control the japery of his co-stars, until he inevitably succumbs to the virus which he is trying to cure.
Despite the themes of decay and mutation, Gorham wants to entertain. 'Our show is very much a comedy show, there is equal parts physical comedy as there is physical prowess. 'Much of this comedy comes from the interaction between the trio, and their sure touch in addressing the audience. It's clear that the company are not precious about their skills, willing to put their remarkable feats at the service of fun and humour.
Yet the highlights of Elixir do come with the acrobatics. Whether flinging each other into the air from a teeterboard, juggling atop a ladder, or balancing on their heads, the trio understand the power of spectacle. The plot does weave the routines together, and allows each acrobat a personality. Gorham's background as a break-dancer is evident not only in the energy and enthusiasm of the show, but in the willingness to remember that Elixir is a performance and not merely a street display.
Above all, as Gorham explains, Elixir celebrates giving the audience 'an immensely joyful and uplifting feeling for an hour where they get to laugh, gasp in amazement and leave raving about what they saw.'
Without losing that sense of amazement, Only Bones focuses the attention onto a single figure. Thomas Monckton is alone on stage, and his only prop is a lamp. He introduces his body slowly onto the stage, his head replaced by the lamp and his fingers and toes becoming independent characters. Once he has established the atmosphere through a brief interlude that conjures exotic fish in a submarine landscape, using only his hands and a blue light, he reveals how dramatic the body can be.
In contrast to Elixir, however, Monckton abandons storytelling. Only Bones is more abstract and alludes to clowning. His character becomes vulnerable: his head and torso refuse to act together, each of his muscles straining against each other in a battle of will and flexibility. The visual comedy – especially when Monckton tries to control his wobbling neck – hides an almost absurdist crisis of a body not just in conflict with the world, but against itself.
Monckton has a background in classic circus entertainment. 'I learned to juggle at about eight years old. Through juggling I became more interested in circus skills,' he says. 'Through circus I discovered clowning and through clowning I discovered physical comedy, and new wave clown.' This is not the clown of red nose and audience participation, but the kind of precise choreography that plays on emotional vulnerability and recognition. Humour and spectacle collide to expose a deeper meditation on the human condition.
Monckton is produced by Aurora Nova, a company which became known for high quality experimental and cross-genre physical performance through its Edinburgh venue and, latterly, a strand within the Fringe. Their collection of artists has included Red Bastard and Circa, who paved the way for many contemporary circus shows through their mix of intelligence and trickery.
Monckton, talking about his other Fringe show, The Pianist, recognises how his artistic development fits with the Aurora Nova brand in its fusion of influences. 'When I started it was definitely within a circus format. I created short skills-based acts, normally tightly glued to a piece of music. Now I am more interested in contributing to the progression of contemporary physical comedy.' Elixir and Only Bones may come from a similar tradition, and do share respect for skill, entertainment and audience engagement. However, their diversity of style and distinctive intentions only emphasise the scale and scope of contemporary circus, and it is this range that perhaps has driven the revival.
Elixir, Underbelly's Circus Hub, 6–22 Aug (not 15), 10pm, £11–£12 (£10–£11). Preview 4 & 5 Aug, £9. Only Bones, Summerhall, 5–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), 8.30pm, £11 (£10). Preview 3 Aug, £7.