We took our 4-year-old to the circus recently. It had changed a lot since I last went. In my day it was mainly about animals – lions, tigers, elephants, performing seals and dogs, trapeze acts and of course – clowns. I also remember one year a man was fired out of a cannon up and onto a big net.
Thankfully the days of teaching tricks to animals have been swept away. Now you get loud recorded rock music, colourful lighting, and many different acts – most of them very skilful. There were many moments where I said wow to myself. There were unicycle riders, plate spinners, tight rope walkers and one man who somehow balanced on piles of reels that moved in different directions. It was genuinely breath-taking because you could see he was doing something that was risky. When he stood up for the applause at the end the beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
I’d forgotten the wonder of circus, the look and smell, the up–closeness, and the sheer spectacle of it. And when you come away you see the little caravans, they live in. Circus is part of theatre. Each act has a little story, it has a wrap round audience, and they try to engage our feelings, our sense of awe and our humour, they play with our feelings.
Travelling theatre has a long tradition in Europe. In Shakespeare’s day the players went from town to town. They often used the space near pubs and taverns. In Italy they built a stage with curtains in the town square. The actors would arrive and go to the pub and find out who were the local people of note and then they would work these people into their stories and performances. Little wonder that actors were sometimes described as vagabonds as I am sure that the local worthies hated the power of a group of rebellious strolling players who were here today and gone tomorrow.
The circuses that travel the country today have kept alive the tradition of bringing performances to the people. They live a precarious life with injury and small audiences a constant worry. At this circus I could see that fear in the performers who so desperately wanted you to buy their overpriced drinks and popcorn.
You come away enlivened, your spirits in a better place because for 90 minutes or so you are transported to a place of what-will-happen-next?
You come away enlivened, your spirits in a better place because for 90 minutes or so you are transported to a place of what-will-happen-next? The stars of the show here were two BMX bikers. One rode a small bike and in a small space managed to perform hair raising and death-defying stunts and another rode a larger bike that he managed to bounce up and across spaces where every second you expected him to fall and break every bone in his body. I suppose part of us pays to see things we can’t do ourselves by people who go out on a limp (quite literally sometimes) just to entertain us.
Long may they continue to do so…
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