Giffords Circus: The Thunders review – not death-defying but life-enhancing

Oxford University Parks, and touring
Juggling slapstick and Greek myths works a treat

Giffords Circus packs big ambitions into a little top. Not so much death-defying as life-enhancing, it's a riposte to the gargantuan extravagance of Cirque du Soleil. The shows take place not in an urban dome but on village greens and parks. The ingredients are freshly made, not pre-packed. What is offered is not the giant gleam of a supermarket but the merry medley of a village shop.

As the audience (all ages) waits to go in, Tweedy the clown wanders among them. A wispy figure, like a circus Mark Rylance, he has nothing of the hit-you-over-the-head-with-humour red-nose merchant. He is saucy (you get a lot of his fig leaf-painted knickers) and truly funny, excelling at making skilful tricks with domestic objects look like mishaps. He has a pet iron called Keef. Inside this tent, no one is far from the action. Everyone can see the big smile of the Chinese ballet dancer as she pirouettes en pointe on her partner's head. The kids call out the instant a creature does the smallest poo.

Intimacy is one keynote. So is imagination about form. Instead of a series of acts whipped along by a ringmaster, Giffords' shows are loosely woven stories, performed to the accompaniment of an onstage band; this year the musicians are called the Oedipus Ensemble. The Thunders, directed by Cal McCrystal, takes off from Greek myths, which are delivered with a smack of Carry On Up the Circus. It's a canny choice. A tale of human love, tested by the gods with feats of endurance and punctuated by superhuman feats, is able to encompass Ethiopian fire jugglers and a turkey. (The bird's gobbles are treated as vatic pronouncements.) An apparently boneless Australian contortionist becomes Medusa wearing a body stocking patterned (clever joke) like a jellyfish. A troupe of Ukrainian acrobats in Greek tunics barrel out of a massive Trojan horse. The golden apples of Hesperides dangle above the ring and are reached by climbing a tilting tower of chairs; at the peak, the mountaineer celebrates by swivelling in a star shape.

Salty humour and beauty are companions here. The saucer-eyed Nancy Trotter Landry is both a slapstick comic (many flashes of big pants) and the occasion of sudden peace. She summons a flock of doves to flutter on to her outstretched arm, where they settle in perfect order like a white ruffled sleeve. Nell Gifford, the artistic director, appears on horseback, her face painted gold, like a goddess. She could play Boudicca or, though I hope she resists, Britannia. Yet she and her company are really like nature spirits: 21st-century versions of the Green Man. Surely McCrystal should turn for his next story to the pagan legends of hills, woods, meadows and wodewose. In the meantime, here is a lightly delivered lesson. Giffords, the most English of circuses in its topsy-turvy charm, is also completely international. Ukip followers should be compelled to attend.


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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