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Circa – The Return review at the Barbican Theatre, London – ‘almost sublime’

A scene from Circa –the Return at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

This production is so frustratingly nearly sublime. Borrowing its name from Monteverdi’s baroque opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, it also marks the return of Australian contemporary circus heavyweights Circa to the Barbican, under the auspices of the 2016 London International Mime Festival.

Director Yaron Lifschitz, musical arranger Quincy Grant and the Circa ensemble have adapted Monteverdi’s tale of separated lovers into a starkly abstract piece about struggle and progress, accompanied by an on-stage orchestra and two singers, as well as jagged electronic re-workings of the original score.

This show often lays bare the beautiful rigour of contemporary circus – muscle disciplined into art – better than Up Close, Circa’s deliberate attempt to do so at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. And while the six-strong Circa ensemble – blank of costume and expression – undertake breath-taking feats, they’re also marionette-like as they throw each other around.

This tension between mastery and manipulation creates some stunning moments of allegorical fusion. The performers – frozen like Anthony Gormley sculptures – respond helplessly, jerkily, to the electronic rumble or a string plucked by a cellist on the right of the stage. They’re like notes tortured into haunting visual music, the strip of wall behind them their stave.

So it’s a shame there’s such a disconnect between the forlorn power and inter-dependency of these interludes and the four Monteverdi pieces sung by tenor Robert Murray and mezzo soprano Kate Howden. In these moments, the choreography becomes tone-deaf. Circus and music stop talking to each other, seeming suddenly to inhabit different worlds on the same stage.

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An almost sublime union of circus and music, frustratingly let down by some poorly integrated pieces