Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Wunderkammer, Barbican Centre

Review: Wunderkammer, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 04.08.2011

When circus moves its audience, it usually does so via the extraordinary, with feats of grace or daring. We marvel at it. Our facial muscles slacken, our eyes widen and our mouths form perfect Os. There’s a sharp intake of breath, so reflex that the air inhaled seems lighter than usual as it rushes down your windpipe. All you can do is stop and stare, amazed and dumbfounded.

Wunderkammer is different. It moves by dint of vulnerability. Not the sort that depends on danger, but simple, honest, human frailty. After 85 minutes of tumbling and trapeze, the six performers (there are usually seven, but Scott Grove is currently injured) strip down to their smalls and stand facing us, frank and self-assured with natural, gawky beauty. It’s a tender, touching end to a show with a thinly-veiled ethical and political message.

Looking back after a few days, however, Wunderkammer now seems mawkish and manipulative. The core message – a call for respect, imploring us to treat people as ends not means – is wishy-washy and unsophisticated. It works in the moment because it’s blurry and needs some figuring out. Satisfaction comes from spotting rather than appreciating or heeding it. Were that tritely obvious message stated simply, it would be almost instantly dismissible.

Instead, it’s carried in the mode of performance, which evolves from uncaring to generosity, becoming apparent only with gradual accumulation. The process is, essentially, from take to give: initially performers climb on one another, later they offer support. They go from mannequins tossed about to limp bodies tended to and cared for.

This beige mantra is applied first to sexual, then global politics. Early acts are given a twist of archetypal Amsterdam or Soho. All sultry neon lights and smeared lipstick. The performers cruise the stage, seeking and swapping partners with a blank sexuality. Dead-eyed women and predatory men. A clunky striptease plays in reverse, as a woman surprised to find herself in nipple tassles pulls on layers of clothing. Stilletto heels dig into the flesh of human stepping stones. Girls are pulled across the floor by their hair. A microphone sniffs around a woman’s body.

The penultimate scene, set against the Animaniac’s Nations of the World (‘United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama etc), returns to chaos. The glare of stadium lights gives the sense of a burning oil well.

The break comes with an aerial rope routine, pristine and fragile, that suggests drowning and dissociation. A cold splash of realisation. Lit starkly from behind, the performer resembles a fly caught in a spider’s web. There are few dramatic tumbles, in which she rushes towards the ground. Instead, she is isolated, trapped and eerily frozen. The technique is exquisite. We don’t gasp, we admire.

After this, it’s all gentleness and affection. Performers provide assistance, mutually collaborating to construct routines. A woman in pointe shoes tiptoes over small blocks moved carefully, precisely around the stage; her feet guided onto the stilts slowly. They help one another onto the trapeze and catch each other like the safety nets that fireman set up for jumpers. This is humane and dignified. It’s utopian and we melt at the sight of it.

However, with distance, heartwarming turns to heartburn. Without interrogation or specificity, this gushing and one-note ethical maxim makes us gooey and it would seem that Wunderkammer dupes us into a different kind of marvelling. Gawps have replaced gasps, but we’re still hypnotised into uncritical acceptance.

Photograph: Justin Nicholas, Atmosphere Photography

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