During the second half of Mundo Paralelo, two young critics, each about nine years in age, were sat in the row behind me, commentating, between scoops of organic ice-cream, on the multi-ball juggling skills of Frida Odden Brinkman.
‘Why is she juggling…again?’ moaned one boy.
‘I think it’s because she’s good at it,’ said the other.
The advertising blurb for the Welsh tour of Mundo Paralelo, which ends this March, teases us with the notion of circus as “a parallel world…where the extraordinary seems commonplace.” This seems to tempt fate somewhat, as the least we can expect of the circus is that it evokes our child-like wonder and amazement.
Cardiff-based NoFit State eschew the flashy showmanship and tacky glamour of the big-top to present their juggling, tightrope and trapeze acts in the black box of a theatre space. The ostensible aim is to explore the relationship between these twin worlds of performance but, disappointingly, Mundo Paralelo is neither an effective piece of theatre, nor a celebration of the circus.
Over the past two decades companies such as Cirque de Soleil and Circus Oz successfully integrated a theatrical sensibility with circus skills in arena shows that coalesced around loose narratives and strong themes. Bosnian director Mladen Materic fails with Mundo Paralelo to develop a stage language that makes sense of NoFit State’s venture into Welsh theatre spaces. In place of a red-breasted ringmaster we are given a tantalisingly glimpse of a top-hatted puppet-master who is nominally in charge of proceedings, yet, as with many of the ideas in this rag-bag of a show, the character slowly fades into the background when he might have provided a focal point.
Undeniably, there are individual moments of breathtaking grace and beauty in Mundo Paralelo – a solo featuring a young woman convulsing with suicidal anguish on a window-ledge is a particular standout – and there are also quirkily comic scenes in which the performers prove themselves to be as accomplished at mime as they are at acrobatics; but there are more frequent occasions when a certain nostalgia for the danger, sensationalism and vulgarity of the traditional circus brings the realisation that a four-hundred-seat auditorium lacks the appropriate scale for presenting seemingly impossible feats of human skill.
And so, a strange sense of intense so-whatness descended upon the matinee audience of parents and children at the Riverfront Theatre – strange because there was no doubting the extreme difficulty of the acts being performed to our feeble applause.
This is attributable, in part, to the lack of a discernible narrative in Mundo Paralelo, with the result that it consequently lacks a sense of purpose. Characters do not develop, as surely they must do in a successful drama. Absurdist doodlings, each framed by a shifting curtain backdrop – and accompanied by increasingly annoying live music in the manner of whimsical French comedies like Amelie – are offered up in a procession of scenes that do not cohere into a transformative experience for its audience. In short, Mundo Paralelo is an odd neutered hybrid, missing the variety and chaos of the circus, devoid of the concentrated emotional power of the stage.
NoFit State has been reinventing circus since the mid-eighties, and National Theatre Wales have enlarged our notions of what theatre is, and can be, through its range of stunning site-specific works in the two years since its founding, so this co-production between two of the nation’s most innovative companies promised a great deal. It is sad to report that, in trying to walk the tightrope between two performance traditions, the creators of Mundo Paralelo wobbled and fell.
With its unforgettable Port Talbot Passion and its incandescent staging of The Persians, National Theatre Wales has given Wales two of its greatest theatrical events of recent times. Both were site-specific productions that drew upon, and were grafted onto highly localised environs. Following the technically-excellent, though rather unengaging production of Gwyn Thomas’ The Dark Philosophers (which was also staged at Newport’s Riverfront Theatre and is touring later in 2012) it remains to be seen whether National Theatre Wales can reclaim Wales’ traditional theatre spaces with the same success with which it has laid claim to its landscape.