The revolution is no circus

Keith Gallasch

Rockie Stone, Davey Sampford, Figaro Variations

Rockie Stone, Davey Sampford, Figaro Variations

Rockie Stone, Davey Sampford, Figaro Variations

This is a show you’ll either love or hate depending on your expectations of physical theatre. There have been a number of subversive moments in the genre over the last decade with some key works by Legs on the Wall, The Party Line and others where physical theatre and contemporary performance merge to produce something beyond a parade of tricks. But there’s always a tendency to go back to circus roots for the sheer fun of it, pleasing the audience or re-energising before tackling the dark stuff once more. Brisbane’s Rock’n’Roll Circus do it both ways in their Rock’n’Roll Circus

Inspired by the Mozart-da Ponte opera, The Marriage of Figaro, an adaptation of Beaumarchais’ original play regarded as revolutionary for its brazenly comic critique of artistocratic power, Figaro Variations is what it says it is, a set of variations responding to themes from the opera and subsequent history. It does not reproduce the plot of the opera to any extent, except quite laterally and, occasionally, musically. Although a physical theatre work with not a little clowning and some striking displays of skill, this is no circus. In fact it shifts with determination from rude comedy to stark symbolism, from lively clowning to the distressed stillness of contemporary performance, from the complex and optimistic gaiety of Mozart to the mournfully ironic portrayal, in the music of Shostakovich, of revolution betrayed, and on to silence and reconciliation.

Act 1 is a world made up of routines and gags, visual piss jokes and of relationships, passions and tensions writ large. Cherubino’s dancerly swooning on a very tall pole is brutally interrupted by the Count, a langorous, red-nosed testicle-fondling clown (plenty of ball jokes and juggling), who brings his servant right down to earth. A sustained sequence where he rides his bicycle in a perpetual circle while his servants leap on to shave and to dress him from top to bottom completes the Act 1 picture of casual power and subordination. The slipping between Mozart and a kind of ragtime in Act 1 gives way, after a protracted stillness and silence, to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 in Act 2 . Figaro is now a revolutionary hero and comedy gives way to images of increasing oppression—struggles, headlocks, dark feats of strength, of threatening knife juggling and dangerous imbalance. In Act 3, Forgiveness, stark images (a gasping Cherubino descending on a red rope looks like something from Francis Bacon), reversals physical and emotional, and final unions slowly unfold in elegaic elegance—too ponderous and too still at times for the good of the work’s overall dynamic, but you can see what director Yaron Lifschitz is getting at. Such restraint in physical theatre is rare.

The whole concept of Figaro Variations is a bold one and not easy to pull off. It’s not always easy to follow the show even if you know the opera’s characters. Given those physical theatre audience expectations and the movement from fun to increasing abstraction, stillness and seriousness, Rock’n’Roll Circus takes a substantial risk—of being accused of pretentiousness (not helped by the title) and confusing its audience. If the audience were palpably bemused the night I saw the performance at The Powerhouse, they were nonetheless attentive and appreciative. Ably directed and engagingly performed physically and musically, and a confident step forward from the company’s last major work, Tango, Figaro Variations is to be applauded for the risks taken, the seriousness ventured.

Figaro Variations, Rock’n’Roll Circus, director Yaron Liftschitz, musical director Paul Hankinson, music Mozart, Shostakovich and Hankinson, costumes Anna Illic, lighting Jason Organ, choreographer Nathan Tight; Brisbane Powerhouse, Nov 29 – Dec 7

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 36

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003