The Return

Created by director Yaron Lifshitz with Quincy Grant and the Circa Ensemble
Barbican Theatre - London International Mime Festival 2016

Circa's The Return Credit: Chris Herzfeld
Circa's The Return Credit: Chris Herzfeld
Circa's The Return Credit: Chris Herzfeld
Circa's The Return Credit: Chris Herzfeld
Circa's The Return Credit: Chris Herzfeld

“It’s like physical jazz”, says director Yaron Lifshitz: sixty-five uninterrupted minutes of very physical jazz and a musical mix that takes in electronic soundscape, cello solo, but above all excerpts from Monteverdi’s baroque Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria—The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland—sung by tenor Robert Murray and mezzo soprano Kate Howden.

Who says ‘high’ and ‘low’ art don't mix? As in Opus last year, Lifshitz has changed the landscape of circus art, deepened its drama, choreographed a remarkable scenario, abstract art that moves the heart and spirit. Good to see Royal Ballet choreographer Will Tuckett in the audience...

Shocked gasps from the audience, daring gravity-defying feats of strength, suppleness, balance, and timing—and pain: flipping like a dying fish, splat on the floor. Hands don’t break the fall; over they go again. Bodies in grey shabby clothes against a grey wall, grisaille, bas relief on a tomb, shadows cast on an impregnable wall, lighting turning it black red, bleaching the skin.

Women contort, distorting dislocated joints—is this Penelope waiting for Ulysses to come home, fending off suitors? Beautiful baroque music plays, musicians sitting to the side, dividing our attention. The music shifts to jazz; the bodies twist in astonishing Cubist representation of the real thing, Picasso females.

We may well gasp: no one should be doing that to their bodies, think of the lasting damage. A tenor sings, a pure sound on cue, and acrobats fly through the air, are raised high on shoulders, a woman stands on a man’s hands held high in the air, flips, dives and is caught safely by strongman—Ulysses?

The tables turn: a slight woman supports a big man on her shoulders—where does this strength come from? Penelope sings, as three women gaze into the light and perform individual solos: one is caught in a dangling cube, one on a rope, twisting like a side of beef, another must keep to small raised blocks of wood, metaphors all.

Men spin, cartwheel, backflip, and slam against the wall: warrior gymnasts, electrifying, convulsive, helping each other, defying exhaustion and time in existential struggle. The way is arduous, dangerous, but they must help each other.

Arms held out like ledges, biceps steeled to hold anyone who approaches him, climbs up him, dives through him: the agony of Ulysses and Penelope. The wall—physical and mental—repulses them time and again. A young man’s solo ends the show, positive, energetic, hopeful: he has made it.

Musical credits are shared by Claudio Monteverdi, Quincy Grant, John Barber, Jakub Jankowski and Cornel Wilczek. The acrobats are Nathan Boyle, Daniel O’Brien, Nicole Faubert, Bridie Hooper, Brittanie Portelli, and Duncan West. Together they create a powerful, moving spectacle that couldn’t be more relevant to today: classical ancient Greece training the spotlight on our twenty-first century’s seemingly irresolvable refugee situation.

Born in South Africa to Eastern European parents, Australian director Lifschitz’s DNA must sense acutely something of that. Post-Holocaust, masses of humanity were displaced for many years. We have the same problem today: the grey flotsam and jetsam swept this way and that. The wanderings of Ulysses/Odysseus and his men, The Return is really about that long exhausting Journey home, obstacles, hazards, distractions, sickness, but above all resilience of the human spirit.

Lifschitz, Artistic Director and CEO of Circa (originally known as Rock’n’Roll Circus, formed in Brisbane, Australia in 1988, becoming Circa in 2004), since 1999, “seeks to re-imagine circus as an artform.” He is not alone in this, as the London International Mime Festival so manifestly demonstrates, but he brings a keen dramatically trained sensibility to an old evolving form.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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