lesh-eating pygrnies. motorbike swordfights and people with lit fireworks exploding from their arse cheeks aren‘t the usual staples ofcircus acts. Or at least they weren‘t until traditional circus supremo Gerry Cottlc. and Pierrot Bidon. the man behind Archaos and Doctor Haze. got together.
Between them they have created a Frankenstein‘s monster of a show: a gothic horror which uses historic circus skills mixed with a futuristic. post-nuclear holocaust narrative. a healthy dose ofshock ‘n‘ roll and an unhealthy interest in the macabre. The result is a kitsch phantasmagoria that makes a nonsense of the saying ‘seeing is believing’. There is humour in bucketloads. but it can be difficult to have a belly laugh when your belly is trying to exit via your mouth.
‘Therc are two reasons why traditional circus fails in the UK.‘ says Doctor Haze. the man whose deviant imagination gave birth to the show‘s concept. and the ringmaster faced with the difficult task of keeping his unruly mob of performers in their place. ‘Firstly. the standards of many circuses aren‘t good enough. They‘re rubbish. shit. boring. The other reason is that you can‘t use animals anymore. it‘s not politically correct. If you are going to take animals out. whatever your views on that are. then you‘ve got to replace it with something.‘
The Circus Of Horrors has replaced the animals with performers who give the impression of undergoing agonies which would have any dodgy dictator queuing up for hints and a top ten torture tips hit list. The most extreme act involves a man from Pilton. Edinburgh. John Kamikaze. or the Prince of Pain as his colleagues know him. is sitting in his caravan inserting the first of 250 assorted hypodermics and hat pins into his skin in preparation for the night‘s show. Does he bleed when he pulls the pins out?
‘Sometimes I do when I put the hypodermic through my arm ‘cos the skin‘s getting a bit tough and I hit a vein. It‘s like when I put the pin through my voice box. That‘s why I sometimes sound a bit hoarse.‘ he cackles happily. evidently thrilled at the prospect of only having 249 more needles to go before curtain. ‘I‘m Scottish. I‘ve got to have a sense of humour about it.‘ Eat your heart out. Begbie.
While mutilation plays a large part in the show. it isn‘t the be-all and end-all by any
When Gerry Cottle, the granddaddy of the big top, decided to share his tent with Archaos’s master of the macabre, there were fireworks . . . in intimate places. Jonathan Trew steels himself for a visit to the Circus Of Horrors before its Festival debut.
THE CIRCUS OF HORRORS FEATURE
means. Bidon takes a much wider view of the circus tradition. ‘If you look carefully at the history of circus then what we are doing is nothing new.‘ he explains. ‘lt‘s only from the l93()s. between the two wars. that the Americans invented the circus as we know it now. We call it traditional and in fact it is very modern. What we are doing now is coming back to this tradition.‘ Kamikaze‘s act echoes the sideshow freak beloved of the Victorians while some of the other scenes will be familiar to aficionados of acrobatic skills and magic tricks. Most people have seen a woman disappear from a locked box but when seen close~up with no chance of camera jiggery-pokery or trap doors. it still sends a primitive shudder down the spine. The Circus Of Horrors updates the traditional and presents it in a new way. According to Bidon two things have changed since the last century: ‘The music. Circus used to be inspired by military music which was in fashion. Now it‘s rock ‘n‘ roll. so we use rock ‘n’ roll. The other thing is the means of travel. Before. everybody
‘Sometimes I bleed when I put the hypodermic through my arm ’cos the skin’s getting a bit tough and I hit a vein. I’m Scottish. I’ve got to have a
sense of humour about it.’
travelled by horse so in the circus horses were used. Now everybody travels by car. motorbike and plane so we use cars and motorbikes in the circus.‘
There are no planes in this show but it‘s probably just a matter of time. As it is. one foolhardy bloke manages to get airborne and ride a motorbike up a rope with a trapeze artist dangling precariously below. The danger inherent in many of the acts is the attraction for the audience and artists alike. The performers get the adrenalin buzz and the crowd wallows in the vicarious thrill of someone putting their life on the line before their eyes.
The price of audience enjoyment can be high. Cottle and Haze first hatched the plan for their project when they were brought together by the accidental death of one of their mutual colleagues. On a separate occasion. one of the
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Dr Haze and hls message In a bottle (above), and Pllton man John
Kamlltaze (left) finds his act a pain In the neck
members of Kiss My Axe. a Highlander-style swordfighting act. was fatally wounded at a trade fair.
‘The fact that he died doesn’t matter to us.‘ says Haze speaking of the circus community as a whole. ‘We understand that we‘re in a risky profession. I know people who have died and lots of people who have had bad accidents. We had a fire-eating guy in to audition yesterday. He set himselfon fire.‘
Given the hazardous nature of the job. these incidents all add to the mystique surrounding circus acts and Gerry Cottle is just the man to stoke the controversy. Cottle is the original boy who ran off to join the circus. At the tender age of fifteen he decided he didn‘t want to follow in his father‘s footsteps and join the financial services. Life on the road beckoned. Curiously. John Major. whose father was in a circus. was a couple of years above Cottle at the same school. Major turned his back on the circus and ran away to become an accountant which says something. Although what it probably says most clearly is that Cottle can spin a yarn with the same case that most people breathe.
A born raconteur who could remove the proverbial donkey’s hind legs given half an hour. the man has a thousand and one anecdotes up his sleeve. all delivered with the polished patter of a born showman and with enough persuasive nous to sell salt water to a shipwrecked sailor. Delicately treading the fine line between courting outraged publicity and avoiding the show being outlawed by over- sensitive councillors. he can state: ‘One criticism is that there was not enough blood. In the second half we cut off a leg. we cut a throat and the audience get squirted with (fake) blood. This dark image is fun fora lot of people.‘
‘We have had a lot of controversy.‘ he beams.
‘We‘ve nearly been banned.‘ The Circus Of Horrors (Fringe) Leirlt Links (Venue I78) 054/ 555 595. 9—3/ Aug (no! 28), 8pm (under .s'i.t'leens Sal/Sun, 5pm), £8—£IZ ([6470).
The List 9- l 5 Aug I996 23