A month ago, wanting to taste Berlin’s famous arts scene on my travels, the first poster that really caught my eye turned out to be for a show developed closer to home: Circa’s Wunderkammer. Circus may well be Brisbane’s greatest cultural export, and Circa stands (or rather, perhaps, trapezes) at the forefront, producing work that tests the boundaries of what circus arts can achieve.
Circa returns to its home city to stage the world premiere of a new work for Brisbane Festival. Il Ritorno is something of an epic experiment, drawing on disparate works from across the centuries to evoke a powerful sense of longing for home. Monteverde’s 1640 opera Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Partria forms the base of the work, describing Ulysses’ return to Ithaca to reunite with Penelope and slay the suitors who’ve squabbled for both queen and kingdom for 20 years. Layered over this are themes from Primo Levi’s accounts of survivors’ long journeys home from Auschwitz.
To pull together The Odyssey, Italian opera, the Holocaust and circus seems like an impossible feat. Yet, just as Circa’s performers seem to flow more than fly through the air, Il Ritorno flows together seamlessly. The ensemble (Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Nicole Faubert, Gerramy Marsden, Brittannie Portelli and Duncan West) moves as if carried by currents. Piles of shifting bodies are both the ocean returning Ulysses home and horrific tableaux of writhing victims of war. With minimal set design — just a black stage and black wall — the bodies of the performers become the palimpsest on which this desperate homesickness plays out.
Quincy Grant’s arrangements and original compositions bring it all together. Singers Alicia Cush, Bethan Ellsmore, Matthew Hirst and Mattias Lower perform powerful Italian opera alongside heartfelt Yiddish and German folksongs, sometimes descending into an uncanny babel of languages lost alongside one another. Mattias Lower initially seems a slight figure for grand Ulysses — but his baritone soon proves otherwise. Alicia Cush is a resolute and stoic Penelope, while Matthew Hirst’s resonant voice guides us through a work as a vivid as a dream.
Libby McDonnell’s costume design and Jason Organ’s lighting work together to create a hyper-real sense of texture. Light falls across folks of skirts in a way that brings to mind marble sculptures and renaissance paintings. With such dark staging, some of Il Ritorno’s most memorable scenes involve uncanny shards of warm light catching a performer in mid-air or silhouetted against a mysterious door.
For fans of the sheer thrill of circus itself, there’s plenty of gasp-worthy acrobatics, silks and trapeze — even a little clowning — but the tone of these feats is sepia. The emphasis is firmly on creating mood and narrative. Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, praises Brisbane Festival for continuing to support works that challenge and test what art can do for us, and Il Ritorno is certainly a bold experiment worth being carried along by.
Image by Chris Herzfeld