The 7 Fingers: Duel Reality review – rowdy circus riff on Romeo and Juliet

Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows, Edinburgh
The enthralling Canadian company offer up a fast-paced but often jarring show that treats Shakespeare like the Super Bowl

Here is a twist on Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. Juliet stands on his shoulders and flips in the air. Later, Romeo supports her as she does an upside down split. Then they share the trapeze.

Canadian circus company The 7 Fingers halve the usual length of the tragedy to bring us one hour’s traffic on a stage marked up like a sports pitch. You’re never sure if it’s Shakespeare or the Super Bowl as the audience are divided into two sides and given red or blue wristbands. A referee presides and we are encouraged to whoop it up for our team. (Go reds!)

Alongside this formal sense of a contest is a rougher-edged rivalry that more closely follows the play. To begin, a scuffle breaks out in the auditorium between acrobats seated among us. They flood the stage and there’s a face-off between the hunched gangs, their prowling and fist-punching evoking Jerome Robbins’ choreography for West Side Story although the music used is Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev.

Among the flying kicks are some slow-mo sequences that need sharpening and alongside the occasional rhyming couplet are banal commands like “let the games begin”. But at least the tricks are enthralling. In simultaneous pole acts, Kalani June and Will Underwood slide down headfirst with a speed you are sure will send them through the floor. A juggle-off between Andreas De Ryck and Anni Küpper – one using balls, the other clubs – builds in intensity and adds a hit of competitive excitement to the eventual drop.

Juggle-off … The 7 Fingers: Duel Reality.
Juggle-off … The 7 Fingers: Duel Reality. Photograph: Jean-Francois Savaria

Some acts are brought on as if they are entertainment provided at the masked ball: Arata Urawa with a trio of diabolos and brilliant hula hooper Méliejade Tremblay-Bouchard who eventually looks like she’s swirling around a giant slinky.

As the star-crossed lovers, Nicolas Jelmoni and Soen Geirnaert have enough chemistry without the need for the bursts of heavy breathing on a soundtrack that features rap, jazz and dance music. Danny Vrijsen (as Tybalt) and Einar Kling-Odencrants (Mercutio) make a combustible duo but mounting their duel on a teeterboard, an apparatus that requires an initial sense of harmony between the pair, fits oddly until its explosive ending.

You wouldn’t think that Romeo and Juliet requires a spoiler alert but here goes. We’ve just passed Act III, scene i – where the play usually starts to escalate – when those red and blue shirts are tossed aside and the star-crossed lovers sail into the sunset. It’s a bizarre finale for a show that never feels quite at ease with its blurring of big-game energy and Shakespearean tragedy.

• At Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows, Edinburgh, until 26 August.
All our Edinburgh festival reviews


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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