Contemporary circus group Pirates of the Carabina opened the Roundhouse’s Circus Fest with a show tongue-twistingly titled Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine. It is a show that, according to the flyer, “follows two fated neighbours in the course of a day’s misadventures”. The fact of the matter is, however, that it is hard to make out a coherent storyline in the middle of the various circus acts, messy transitions and somewhat random scenes.
Contemporary circus is about fusing the classical genre – which has been around for hundreds of years – with other art forms, and using traditional circus skills in new ways. Pirates of the Carabina partly succeed in doing so; they perform their show to the background of some exquisite live music, composed by members of the company. The circus artists often join the little orchestra, demonstrating their wide array of skills. And though their aerial acts clearly also require a lot of skill and courage, they often feel a little anti-climactic and tame, hardly ever picking up enough pace to warrant a spontaneous applause from the audience.
What really drags the show down, however, are the transitions between segments. Pirates of the Carabina have an original take on the mechanics of circus, often using each other’s bodies as counterweights to lift people up, and exposing the (sometimes literal) nuts and bolts behind their gravity-defying acts. They build and break the necessary equipment for these acts as they go along, and while this transparency is interesting, it slows down the pace quite heavily, and makes it easy for the mind to start wandering. The cog-in-the-machine metaphor is not lost, but the show could have easily been cut by half an hour and been all the better for it.
The often clownish scenes in between acts are occasionally quite funny, but a consistent storyline never emerges, and they fail to develop identifiable character arcs. With an underwhelming balloon drop and out-of-nowhere trapeze striptease towards the end, it just starts to look like the company is desperately trying to hold our attention.
There are also some impressive moments, however, including the show’s opening, a truly incredible balancing act and an ascending piano. The performers are capable and multi-talented, and they form a close-knit ensemble – one would almost say, a well-oiled machine. It’s not their skills, therefore, that are lacking. What this show, and arguably a lot of contemporary circus, would benefit from, however, is a dramaturg. Someone to extract, tighten and polish the story that is buried too deep underneath this potpourri of different scenes.
Add a dramaturg into the mix, and contemporary circus could truly become a fusion of different art forms.
Relentless Unstoppable Human Machine is playing at the Roundhouse until 15 April
Photo: Paul Blakemore