But who are they, tell me, these vagrants, a little
more fugitive even than us, in their springtime
so urgently wrung by one who - who pleases
a never contented will? So it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, swings them,
flings them and catches them behind: out of the oil-smooth
air they come down
onto the flimsy carpet worn
by their eternal leaping, this forlorn
carpet lost in the universe.Fifth Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke
Circus might appear to be the most ideology-free of the arts, but it has a long tradition of association with revolutionaries and avant garde artists. In the early 20th century, poems by writers as diverse as Osip Mandelstam and Rainer Maria Rilke demonstrated their fascination with the circus. Kafka wrote stories set in the sideshow and the ring of the big top; Picasso painted the acrobats. And Vladimir Mayakovsky, the exemplary poet of the Russian Revolution, wrote plays for it, and collaborated from his early years with the Bolshevik clown Vitaly Lazarenko. Circus was, in fact, a key arm of the Soviet Union's propaganda machine, inside and outside Russia; for many years, the Moscow Circus was Russia's most friendly international face.
More recently, our very own Circus Oz, which with troupes such as San Francisco's The Pickle Family Circus and New York's The Big Apple Circus in New York reinvented circus in the 1970s, evolved out of the avant garde practice and revolutionary ideals of the Pram Factory. This tradition of subversive populism remains alive and well in Australian theatre, as is brilliantly demonstrated by the family troupe Acrobat.
Acrobat is one of the treasures of regional Australia. A husband and wife team (Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, with appearances from their children Grover and Fidel) hailing from Albury, they've generated an enthusiastic international following with their low-tech, highly skilled theatrical circus. And no wonder: these are exceptional performers, whose mix of unpredictable comedy and astounding physical feats creates irresistible entertainment.
PropagandA - as its poster demonstrates - draws consciously on the tradition of Soviet social realist propaganda. Lancaster and Yates stand proudly in front of a green star, striding forth as the idealised man and woman of the future. Naturally, the show itself collides, sometimes violently, with this professed idealism: the first performance is a duet of acrobatics - backgrounded by one of their children playing chopsticks on an amplified keyboard - in which the two of them struggle into impossible structures which then, always, collapse.
Finally Lancaster gives up and lies stretched out on the ground. Yates drags her by her ankle off to the side, strips off most of her clothes, dresses her passive body in a kangaroo costume topped by a fluffy rabbit, and gives her a bass electric guitar. She stands bare-breasted in a spotlight wearing this absurd, slightly disturbing costume and plays a grunting riff, tonelessly singing lyrics about banal domesticity. This was the first time I got goosebumps.
The rest of the show consists of the usual circus acts - aerial and trapeze performances, the slack wire, the bicycle act, the pole, the leap from a springboard - all executed with an astounding skill that allows them to play with the idea of failure. Each act becomes a metaphor, usually of domesticity, and is given a comic spin. The absence of decoration means that the emphasis falls fiercely on the performers, and I'm not sure that I've seen any of these acts done better. They are miraculous.
The aesthetic here is anti-glamour - the costumes are all brown, and the performers often appear with white Y-front drawn up over their brown shirts. The rigger is, slightly mysteriously, dressed as an early 20th century Eastern European Jew, complete with false beard. Sound and lighting are operated in full sight at the side of the stage, and props are arranged around the edge of the circle, to be thrown away when they're no longer needed. Children wander across the stage, performing obscure tasks. Or maybe just wandering. It's a little like being in someone's kitchen, assuming of course that a kitchen can be a circus.
The propaganda of the title is double-edged. On the one hand, this show lightly explores the insidious conditionings of consumerist, capitalist society, the sub-lunar commands that define the roles of man and woman, family and worker, imprisoning their possibilities. On the other, it has its own message: at one point a child is dressed in ragged hessian wings and lifted on a trapeze, where he shows us handwritten cards on which are written, in wonky capitals, things like BE KIND or GARDEN NUDE or USE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED. If only all propaganda were so benign.
You are most aware that this is a family performing. In the final act, Lancaster and Yates circle on a bike performing acrobatics, pursued by a remote control megaphone shouting BUY A CAR or GET OFF THE ROAD. At one point, I found myself moved to tears. It was, I think, a very small gesture of reassurance, as Yates touched Lancaster's leg as she climbed onto his shoulders. It seemed expressive of the purest trust. Perhaps it revealed what is rendered invisible by the puissant skill of these performers: the risk and danger of what they do. And I should add that for all the seriousness of this review, this is a joyous show, leaving you with the lightness of heart that is the gift of performance.
PropagandA, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, featuring Grover and Fidel Lancaster-Cole. Production manager/rigger, Scott Grayland/Ryan Taplin. Music director, Tim Barrass. acrobat, commissioned by HotHouse @North Melbourne Arts House Meat Market until April 3. On tour internationally from May.