How Like An Angel

It’s all about the high ceilings, the high ropes and the high brows in this ‘holier-than-thou’ collaboration between circus collective Circa and choral group I Fagiolini.

Presented by the Barbican as part of a season geared towards taking performance into intriguing, unexpected places, there’s something righteously rebellious about a move from the exclusive space of a conventional theatre, into the even more imposing location of a 890-year-old religious site, located at the heart of the City’s Square Mile.

At the start of this promenade show we are invited to mill around St Bartholomew’s Church, absorbing the architecture by ourselves. Some brave adventurers carry their torches into the more shadowy corners of the building, but most huddle in an awkward congregation at the centre of the space.

The angels may be yet to make an appearance at this point, but the atmosphere of this spectacular venue gives its own form of guidance — which is disappointingly under-exploited throughout the night. The architecture of this grand building demands a certain reverence but, despite the promenade style, the production gives us little opportunity to respond properly to this noteworthy setting. It therefore suffers as it leaves the meaningful bricks and mortar out of the dialogue. The equipment utilised by the circus performers appears as if it’s been awkwardly plonked into the space: this foregrounds a production that seems to milk all the meaning it can out of the medieval stonework and theologically-charged stained glass, but offers little in return in the way of interpretation.

The first sign of our performers is terribly predictable. Emerging from the mouths of shadowed faces spread throughout the church, voices pierce the reverent air and melt into the ornate corners of the architecture. Then the work takes an innovative turn, as a blue cloth is pulled over our heads. While the jury’s still out as to whether this flash of colour represents the sea or the sky, this blue line communicates — with the simplicity of a child’s drawing — the fact that a new space has been defined; as soon as we are freed from the fabric membrane that contains us, we know we’ve entered a new, celestial state.

Our first angel, portrayed with a cheeky free spirit by Paul O’Keeffe, has clearly got the same memo. A Houdini of the metaphysical world, he battles his way out of a pair of jeans as if in a rebellion against the material that binds him. His denim trousers, once a form of skin, become as instrumental as a muscle or limb in a delicate display of contortion. As O’Keeffe twists and turns, he knots the firm fabric into his routine, depending on it to stay balanced before pushing it away to stay true to his angelic role.

The stripping soon stops, but five other performers from Circa join O’Keeffe in a struggle to escape definitional confinement. The art of contortion is well-suited to this vague exploration of what it means to be an angel, as our circus artists test the limits that define the mortal body. Interacting well with thin air, our six dancers melt and glide, artfully portraying the limitations of being human as well as the strengths of being a supernatural messenger. Sometimes the forces around them keep them up, and they balance and soar improbably. Yet at other moments they are mere subjects to the laws of gravity, meaning a bold dive into the air results in a heavy, comic “thump!”.

There are six circus performers but, while they all team together to orchestrate beautiful moments of co-dependence and balance, three individuals really stand out. As strong as she is elegant, Rowan Heydon-White must be credited for bearing the weight of three fellow performers on her shoulders; it was done with such apparent ease that the trio’s showy and glamorous arrangement could be posed for the society pages of a glossy magazine. Bridie Hooper is also particularly mesmerising as she delivers an intense and breathy aerial performance, tricking the eye with her spiralling torso as she dives, balances and pouts. But despite these superhuman feminine moments, it is O’Keeffe’s performance style that truly raises the production to a higher level. In the teasing angle of his sway as he stands on the edge of a high drop, and in the boyish smile he gives as he narrowly avoids tipping ‘holy’ water over his observers, O’Keeffe delivers a fresh human touch in a work that shamelessly worships at the dual altars of pretentiousness and kitsch.

How Like An Angel’s preoccupation with climbing and falling seems theologically loaded, yet is poorly conceived and, as the piece develops, becomes tremendously dull. As performers swoop over the heads of audience members through a space that is heavy with meaning, there’s an invigorating promise in how the idea of an impressionable, static congregation is re-imagined in a place of worship. Yet despite all its transcendental movements, the production barely dips its toe into any of the themes it glides over, and lacks a certain bite. Sadly, being all style and no substance save a potent gust of hot air, How Like An Angel becomes a little too much like the ethereal beings it strives to represent.

How Like An Angel played at St Bartholomew’s Church, Smithfield between the 25 and 28 June. For more information about Beyond Barbican, which continues until 4 August, see the Barbican Centre website.