Review: Rouge, Underbelly Festival, Southbank

The circus is something you are taught to associate with spectacles and stunts beyond your wildest imagination. In the present day, I thought that the circus as I knew it to be was fading away — not if the cast of Rouge have anything to say about it. In just over an hour they reignite that childhood fascination with the beautifully inexplicable, although childlike wonder is about the only PG theme this show can claim. 

Rouge is an evening of sexually charged circus, framed by the sudden intake of breath, followed by applause of relief and appreciation. The cast of six is made up of Isabel Hertaeg, Paul Westbrook, Lyndon Johnson, Jessie McKibbin, Madison Burleigh and Liam de Jong. I presume that most circus based ensembles have to run a tight ship in the interest of health and safety, but the intense connection between all members of this cast gives the whole evening an added dimension of storytelling. Romance blossoms through flight and fire, with the show finding a perfect way of blending theatre and circus.

The rich array of talent onstage certainly keeps everyone in a constant state of entertainment. Each performer has a specific skillset which they all demonstrate throughout the performance. McKibbin’s entrancing trapeze set sees every pair of eyes raised to the heavens as we watch the tumbles and turns which cast aspersions at Isaac Newton’s theories. In fact, all of McKibbin’s sets are a highlight of the show: their whip tricks excite and their duo cyr wheel routine with Johnson is delightfully charming, with both acts displaying a true variety of skill. I do wish there could be a few more group performances, even just out of curiosity at the magic this cast are capable of when they unite all their forces. What makes these routines work so well is the fact that they feel so fresh — even the acrobatics and high-wire elements that I expected consistently have a surprise twist which makes them richly entertaining. 

What is the secret to reinventing circus? I could never tell, but I would credit the music as a key element to this show’s success at feeling updated. There is an array of genres from pop to opera, indicating that the company haven’t made the mistake of choosing all modern music just to feel new, or all classical music to feel traditional. The soundtrack seems to me as if it has been carefully selected to match each new act, consequently assisting the mood changes throughout. Even though the musical element seem trivial compared to the spectacles we are witnessing, it is still an element, whether consciously or not, that the audience seem to appreciate.

Rouge has a vision which appears quite clear to me: to give circus a modern make-over and in so doing celebrate the beauty of open sexuality in all its forms. From where I’m sitting they achieve not only that but also bring other-worldly delights to a weekday on the Southbank.

Rouge is playing the Underbelly Festival at the Southbank Centre until 15 September. For more information and tickets, see the Underbelly Festival website.