Some of the most extraordinary and outrageous feats performed on stage. Add next level, utterly hilarious, child participation and you have Circus 1903. No Big Top here. Rather, the creature comforts of Arts Centre Melbourne’s premier venue. It goes down a treat thanks to the supreme artistes and the cheeky and cherry patter of ringmaster David Williamson. He is the one who repeatedly brings up on stage volunteers under the age of 10 and then “picks on them”.
Circus 1903 – The Golden Age of Circus was created in Australia in 2016. It has played to sold out seasons in the US (including a Las Vegas residency) and London’s West End. The show combines the spectacular with the creative. Front and centre are life size puppet elephants – Queenie and baby Peanut – designed and made in the UK by Significant Object. They “perform” like traditional circus elephants, without concerns about animal cruelty.
Circus 1903 starts off innocently enough, with Williamson offering the audience popcorn. That is when the hijinks begin. Many of the acts combine dramatic music with acrobatic excellence. First up are The Daring Desafios – Oskar Norin, Karl Wiberg and Anton Persson – a trio with split-second timing. They fly high from a teeterboard (which resembles a playground seesaw). They tumble and turn in the air and stick the landing every time. Like much of what follows, they are just so polished.
Upturned on a chair, legs in the air, a man tosses another with his feet – at speed –this way and that, as if the latter were a rag doll. Known as the Icarian Games, it is a dizzying delight from Mohammed Ibrahim and Hamza Seid. The circus is, indeed, a playground for the imagination and a short, seductive routine to showcase just that follows. An eight-time artistic cycling world champion, David Schnabel wows when his shining red bicycle becomes all but an extension of him. Facing forwards and backwards, he “rides” the bike via every part of the apparatus, including the handlebars, not missing a beat.
A smiling, diminutive contortionist, Mekdes Kebede manipulates her body in ways that make the audience wince and that includes using her mouth. Next up is a duo-trapeze balletic piece involving The Flying Fredonis, Yoann Benhamou and Emeline Goavec. All of what I have described happens before the appearance of the elephants to end Act I. After interval, Elena Suarez Pariente completes another astonishing routine in the air – eventually spinning faster and faster – when strung up by her hair.
Ringmaster Williamson has fun with a father and daughter in a charlatan giveaway. Valeri Tsvetkov and Yani Stoyanov, known as Les Incredibles, display superhuman strength and balance. That incorporates a head handstand, before the one doing the heavy lifting sits and then stands, still holding up his mate. Those neck muscles must be phenomenal. The Great Gaston – Francois Borie – juggles as many as seven – yes, seven – batons. The ringmaster generates much mirth and merriment when he brings another four youngsters up onto the stage with an act involving a hand puppet racoon.
Another high-flying aerial display precipitates a close to proceedings. As spectacular as that was, I thought the ending to the show wasn’t as slick as the rest of it. I wasn’t convinced about that choice as the final salvo. I would have rather something distinctly new ahead of curtain fall. To me, it didn’t feel like the show finished on a high. Still, Circus 1903 remains a triumph and a treat – a coming together of internationally renowned performers, brim full of talent and heart. In fact, the stars are drawn from the USA, France, the UK, Ethiopia, Sweden, Germany and Bulgaria.
Circus 1903 is playing at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 14th January, 2024.