Pioneering Cambodian circus company Phare Ponleu Selpak - meaning brightness of the arts - holds the British premiere of its show Rouge during the Milton Keynes International Festival in collaboration with London 2012 Festival, before taking it to the capital’s Purcell Room where it is part of Southbank Centre’s Festival of the World.
A scene from Rouge at the Theatre Tent, Campbell Park, Milton Keynes
It is the result of a three-year collaboration with dance troupe Compagnie UBI, whose French director Sarosi Nay explores the atrocities and genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Many young Cambodians - including these eight male artists, apparently - grew up believing it was just a myth, so this was always going to be as much about education as entertainment.
The steamy heat of the theatre tent perhaps gives a feel of the Cambodian jungle, and using some excellent circus skills - tumbling, hand-to-hand, handstands - and shadowplay, dramatic but non-gratuitous scenes of imprisonment and beatings are effectively played out. The action is backed by a two-piece onstage gamelan band, whose pulsing drums and gongs add to the atmosphere. Bamboo poles are used in most of the vignettes to form boundaries and barriers and to become channels for the juggling balls to roll down or to create a flight of steps.
Mony Ratanaksambath - the super-fit stand-out acrobat - plays an unfortunate prisoner who never evades his captors. The hopelessness of his plight powerfully portrays the horror of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, which should never be forgotten, and makes for thought-provoking and challenging viewing.