Il Ritorno review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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Art has always been the means by which humanity processes the best and worst of itself, oftentimes simultaneously. Expressions of heart-wrenching beauty and talent can be inspired by acts of abject horror, but, as has often been the case, passing those unutterable, unbearable tragedies through a creative prism can offer perspective, understanding, and sometimes, even catharsis.

Man’s capacity for cruelty has been the powerful muse behind Circa’s Helpmann Award-winning Il Ritorno, but it’s difficult to precisely pinpoint what is most impressive about the Brisbane-based circus troupe’s production: that it succeeds so transcendently in its exploration of dispossessed people, or that it achieves this poetic yet unflinching study via a medium that’s often dismissed as mere spectacle. Through a potent cocktail of acrobatic movement, aerialism and Renaissance opera, Il Ritorno offers a stark but subtle examination of the diaspora of refugees, that is at once visually arresting and emotionally concussive.

Director Yaron Lifschitz has anchored this piece to two distant yet simpatico cultural waypoints, the Greek epic, Homer’s Odyssey, and the Nazi’s Jewish holocaust. Several existing artistic artefacts are repurposed and coalesced. A number of excerpts from Monteverdi’s Il Riorono d’Ulisse in Patria are interspaced by settings of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi’s haunting poetry, as well as arrangements of Mahler and other Germanic folk songs, superbly interpreted by composer Quincy Grant.

Il Ritorno is neither circus nor opera, but a new construction that uses extreme displays of physical and musical accomplishment.

This is not simply a lamination of music and movement; the symbiosis of song, acrobatics and theatre is so total that it quickly becomes clear that existing terminologies would do this production a disservice. Il Ritorno is neither circus nor opera, but a new construction that uses extreme displays of physical and musical accomplishment to bring those most urgent and ineffable emotions, the ones we keep buried deepest within ourselves, into the outside world.

Lifschitz has consciously removed almost all the ‘ta-da’ cadences from the various elements drawn from circus. Instead of flawlessly elegant landings, bodies collide with the floor with a sobering thump. Rather than defying gravity, the twisting human forms appear even more controlled by it, as unseen forces yank and assault them.

In the place of dazzling speed and explosive energy, the pace is often weighed down, as if these people were wading through quicksand. Jason Organ’s lighting design terraces bold polarities, switching from dimly lit gloaming to blinding spotlights that cast long, inhuman shadows across the black wall that carves across the stage. From concentration camps to Berlin to Palestine – walls divide and segregate, pen and trap. Its presence here resonates with all those hateful connotations.

This vision is bleak but painfully familiar – its source material dates back thousands of years, and yet our civilisation persists in its persecution of minorities. Il Ritorno provokes a stinging tinge of shame, as its depictions of discarded people not only mirror the victims of the Nazi’s Jewish genocide but also the desperate trudge of Syrian refugees across Europe, that fill our television screens every day.

But there is hope here too.

As the figures on stage fight against the forces that contort and manipulate them, they show an inextinguishable determination. When they fall they get back up again; when they climb they pull each other up. This glimpse of humanity is battered and broken, but crucially, it is not defeated. At the show’s conclusion a door opens in the impenetrable wall, revealing a warm, fiery light. Is this a path to salvation of the beginning of yet another struggle? The answer, it seems, is ours to decide.

Il Ritorno is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until August 20. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.

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