Transfixed at the Big Top

Sally Marlow reviews 'Dark Circus' in the London International Mime Festival at the Barbican.

There are two art forms I would crawl over broken glass to avoid: rom com films, and physical theatre. I’m not therefore an obvious choice to review Dark Circus by Stereoptik. The marketing promised 'two visual artists who draw and play music live to build a big top universe'. My attitudes to mime were formed as a teenager in the 1980s courtesy of a show called Not the Nine O’Clock News, when Rowan Atkinson appeared as mime artist Alternative Car Park, to tell us his body was his tool. Tonight I was determined to banish that precursor to Mr Bean, and open my mind to the possibilities of mime. After all, there are other circumstances where my brain manages to suspend disbelief, to create meaning from visual and audio stimuli – why not here? 

I wondered what a mime audience would look like. It turns out they’re much like any other theatre audience, a bit younger perhaps. But there were few clues that I was going to experience anything out of my comfort zone – not a Breton t-shirt, twirly moustache or white glove in sight.

Within seconds of the opening, I knew I was going to be immersed in something special. The performance consists of 55 minutes of an artist and a musician drawing and providing a soundtrack for a narrative for a circus where bad things happen. This Circus was indeed Dark, and on the screen in front of us a trapeze artist fell off her perch, a lion tamer was eaten, knife throwing went very badly wrong. But more than the story, the delicacy and damn cleverness of the art and music produced along the way was utterly mesmerising. Meaning emerged from what first appeared to be random brush strokes as the Stereoptik duo manipulated our senses and our emotions using low tech equipment like overhead projectors, ink and acetate. How quickly a blank light box became a field, became a setting for a big top, became an urban housing estate, and with what beauty. The overhead projector faded in and out as ink bled, charcoal was smudged, and guitar strings became a lion cage. A pile of powder? Sand? Iron filings? It was hard to tell in the dark, but whatever it was, it was transformed into exquisite tower blocks. How did they do that? And how did I feel such poignancy? 

The Dark Circus acts rolled on, punctuated by a ringmaster with more than a whiff of a seedy Elvis impersonator about him. He asked the audience to welcome each performer as they were projected up in front of us, and we applauded at their entrances, and at their deaths. I was transfixed. But then, for me at least, although not I think for most of the audience, the bubble burst.  Spoiler alert: there was a happy ending. Suddenly there was a big red clown’s nose, changing the monochrome tones of the Dark Circus into coloured hues. Light and happiness arrived with a vengeance. The performance climaxed in everyone who had died coming back, boogieing along with the lion and having a simply smashing time. I felt like I did in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Andie McDowell’s character turns to Hugh Grant at the end and says “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed”. 

The first 80 per cent was good enough for me to more than forgive however: so much so, that when I got home, I immediately went online to book tickets for my son, an art student. So thanks to Stereoptik: I still would have preferred a high body count, but that probably says more about my own inner workings than theirs.   

- Reviewed by Dr Sally Marlow, National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience King’s College London. 

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