Entrepreneur John Hole takes Neil Cooper back to an era when acrobats risked their necks, magicians’ assistants risked being sawn in half, and rock ’n’ roll wasn’t invented.
Way back in the good old days. a circus was a place of sawdust and strongmen, where Iion-tamers risked life and limb with the crack of a whip while some daring young buck performed airborne gymnastics
without the luxury of a safety net. But times change, and come the digitalised 805 Billy Smart and
Chipperfield seemed as much fun as a pie in the face.
Hi-tech won out over high wire, with MTV and Sega providing the glossy thrills and spills. Until. that is. the increasingly sophisticated outdoor busking set grew tired of hanging round street corners and threw a chainsaw in the works. The New Circus movement grew. reaching its zenith with Archaos and Jitn Rose. latterday freakshows both.
Now. as the Victorian Circus of Illusion parades into Edinburgh for a two-night stand, the merry-go- round seems to have come full circle. Escapologists. jugglers. acrobats. clowns and other Greatest Show On Earth-type luminaries adorn an old-time bill topped by illusionist extraordinaire The Great
"'3 9"” “"3": 3 "‘Vsmim“ 399mm" to cm“ diwem' girls on the flying trapeze. ‘The difference with these
Kovari. who plans on this occasion to make part of the audience disappear. Whether this will improve the bums-on-seats factor or not is anybody‘s guess, but director John Hole seems non-plussed by the prospect. A latter-day Leonard Sachs, you can almost see his moustache twirl with glee as he enthuses on the merits of his troupe. Steve Rawling. for instance. juggler of household fumiture and wagon wheels (i) is ‘very funny. slightly tongue in check. slightly rude yet always challenging.‘ The Great Kovari, who‘ll be doing two spots in the show. is ‘a delightful man with
. a quirky sense of humour and a lovely act.‘
For the past seven years Hole has run Crowdpleasers. an agency specialising in street entertainers. Prior to this he spent the 80s working in the leisure department of Hammersmith and Fulham council. a socialist authority attempting to rival the initiatives spearheaded by Ken Livingstone‘s late lamented GLC. Rate-capping and the council‘s failure to be re-elected meant a lot of projects folded. and Hole found himself. through Crowdpleasers. representing a lot of the acts he‘d already worked with. ‘To my astonishment it's been quite successful. I was lucky in that I started about the same time as a lot ofentertainments managers were realising the value of acoustic acts. jugglers and suchlike. I suppose we were stimulated by the success of Archaos. and the way they absorbed elements of rock ‘n‘ roll.‘
A package show seemed the logical next step. and when invited to put together a Christmas show of Victorian circus. Hole inadvertently stumbled on a unique formula of tongue-in-cheek irony and olde English charm tempered by genuine talent that was to iiole‘s surprise. ‘a massive success. so we said we should do it again. but with the emphasis on illusion. And here we are!‘
The Circus comes complete with Ringmaster and. in a neat mid-air myth—twister. a pair of daring young
, acts is that none of them have come out of the old ’ circus families. but have worked up their acts on the . street. As a consequence. all our performers have a
lot ofenergy and perhaps a different perspective on things. Not rock ‘n‘ roll. though. That wouldn‘t be appropriate with this.‘ No Chainsaws then? ‘One does make a brief appearence.‘ concedes Hole. ‘It is a Victorian chainsaw though.‘ he adds. authentic to the last.
Victorian Cirrus Ufl/llleU/i. Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Fri 2 and Sat 3 June.
The name game
‘I was writing another play - a very serious, historical, political play - andtherewasa character In it, a travelling tinker who told stories. I had to have a story tor hint, which helped lill out the scene, and I thought, that’s quite a good story. So I used that.’
Playwright IIavId liarrower Is not exactly sell-eitacing, more Ialdhack. Talking to him, you sense he’s got every confidence in his anlllties, despite his relative youth (he’s 28) and inexperience.
The Traverse Theatre seems to share that confidence. Knives In liens, iiarrower’s tlrst commission from a major theatre, was accepted In ‘more or less Its iirst dratt’, the only
Important condition being to remove tour ‘incidental characters’, reducing the cast to three. The casualness with which he undertook this task seems in a way to inform his overall approach. ‘I’nt iinished with message plays,’ he says. ‘I've written too many and they’re turgid and not tun to write. You’re so bound by the subject that you’re trying to get across that you can’t let the characters hreathe.’ So now when he writes, he allows the characters to dominate the proceedings. ‘I see It as being Interested In people and wanting to know more about them, to give them some kind oi space to live In,’ he
Knives in liens began as the tale oi a simple tamer, his wile, and a book- Iearned lnterloper, set “roughly in the 16th century, In East lothian, sort ol.’
Feeling this to be a thin basis for a play, Iiarrower added a theme: ‘I had this idea about a small community where they only had certain names for things. They didn’t have a relationship with nature where they actually looked on nature - they were still
Knives in liens: Inside nature
within nature. 80 how did their language expand? That’s the central quest oi the young woman, who believes that it’s God who puts each thing into your head.”
Iiarrower may be blasé about the story’s origins, but rehearsals have revealed some at its hidden resonances. ‘Some things came up that I never guessed were there,’ he admits. ‘I hope they were there in my subconscious. But there’s no wrong way or right way at looking at it . . . unless I’m accused of lIazi sympathy or something.’ '
Although he denies thinking much about the audience’s reaction, Iiarrower does hope people will enjoy Knives in liens. ‘I think it’s a hilarious play,’ he says, ‘though there are only two jokes In It. It’s diliicult, because how do you get a 16th century person to tell a joke? But they’re lunny people, these characters. I like their company - I had it tor about eight months.’ (Andrew Bumet)
Knives In liens, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 2-Sat 10 June.
50 The List 2-15 Jun 1995