There are six performers. Dressed loosely in grey, each stands alone on stage. Slowly, we watch them contort. Their bodies strangulate as their eyes fix upon us. Five people alone in their pain – a few try to reach a state of embracing human contact but each effort is denied. They remain in their solitude. Hands twist back in awkward disfigurement. The most graceful impulsive flights land in painful slams – the acrobats are hardened as their audience winces.
This sets the scene for Circa’s The Return, a contemporary circus mirage of Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria presented at the Barbican Centre as part of the London International Mime Festival. Taking the desperate longing for home (‘nostos’) at the heart of the Odyssey, Circa physicalises the pain, loss and longing of diaspora and internally displaced communities through exile and war, with the contemporary physical language of circus. A tarnished, coppery wall cuts half way up our line of vision across the stage. It might represent any or all the barriers of war and violence – the Berlin Wall, the Mexican border, the Iron Curtain – a great frontier. It might just be the barrier separating an exile from home; a woman from a man, longing for return.
The score is a fantasia on four Monteverdi pieces, some of which remain classical arias and duets performed live by musicians on stage. Others become dissonant, with brilliant half-tone harmonies, or deepen down into the electronic thuds of house music. A disconnect between the musicians (warmly lit, orchestrally dressed) and the acrobats (covered by open white lights), sometimes detracts from the physical performances. The running triplets and glissandi of the harpist (Daniel De-Fry) are a musical language of reoccurring hope to match against the desperate calls of the courtly vocalists (Kate Howden and Robert Murray) and broken eyes of the performers.
A trio of floating female heads bend around each other, their lips deeply red, and faces surreally lit. There’s a girl – our Penelope – and this is her story. When we meet her – Bridie Hooper – she falls into the wheel (a full back bend) and pulls up by her plait; it’s a circular move, indicative of the obsessive cycle of individual toil that punctuates the ensemble work. Bridie Hooper’s aerial straps routine, which forms the focal point of the girls’ trio, is frantic, astonishingly quick and impossibly dexterous. The straps gag her. To watch it is destroying. She gives breaths of quickly exhaled, audible effort and the strength of the electronic music (still riffing on Monteverdi) underpins her. All becomes charged with fight and struggle with an intensity more valuable than any other singular moment in the show. She spins in a blur and drops down from the twists in her straps with perfect practice.
By the end, when we’ve been through feats of human towers and startled displays of dehumanised strength, the five performers have barely looked at each other. It achieves a deep aspect of alienation, that despite the physical proximity of their bodies – grasping, clenching and climbing upon one another – their eyes barely ever fix between them. Always, instead, they gaze out: towards the low lights from the wings, or out at us. Climbing up onto shoulders, or hands, or the hanging feet of another becomes an obsessive act to be up high and see out further. The juxtaposition between complete human dependency of physical acts and the utter separation of human emotion and sensation was blindingly moving. So too was the deep longing in their eyes for reunion, for return.
Remember a photograph of the body of a baby washed ashore from a migrant boat. Somehow, Circa has found a way of embodying the pain of that image and the thousands of stories it relates to in a human history of violence and displacement. Somehow they do it with brutal beauty. And hope.
The Return is playing at the Barbican Centre until 31 January 2016. For more information, see www.barbican.org.uk