When I saw the description of this show – French riot-grrrl feminist circus with an all-female cast, inspired by punk and nuclear physics – I had already decided that I was going to love it. Further cementing my confidence that this would be a wonderful night was the fact that I greatly enjoyed the last Circus Fest show I saw at the Roundhouse, RUHM. However, as much as I wanted to love this show, I ultimately left feeling underwhelmed.
The first act was slow to warm up, and consisted mainly of the four performers marching around the stage in stuffy tweed business suits. Parody of masculinity was quickly established as a running theme for the show, with the performers acting out displays of machismo, violence, and dominance with props such as swinging pulleys for genitals (pictured below) and mouthguards to transform their speech into ape-like grunting. The second act was the most interesting, as it contained the most of the show’s actual circussy, acrobatic elements, making creative and often slapstick use of a teeterboard, pole, tightrope, and simple yet effective pulley rope system. The small child in the row behind me giggled his way through this act, which is exactly the delighted response such clowning ought to elicit. However, he was very silent in the third act, which was much more abstract and conceptual, and included moments such as all four performers gathered around a hanging noose-like rope, asking it apparently nonsensical existential questions. The disjointed chaos of this act meant that it tended to drag, and I could feel my own attention wavering at around the same time that the child behind started getting restless and fidgety.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the feminist theory behind this show. Circus is one of the performing arts in which roles for women are still sadly limited and one-note, usually centred around graceful, beautiful feats of aerial acrobatics, and featuring petite, pretty women in tight if not outright provocative costume, whereas their male counterparts get the lion’s share of clowning and comedic roles. Seeing Groupe Bekkrell take a stand against this was wonderful. When one performer had a very no-nonsense costume change onstage (no sensual stripping, just completely utilitarian clothes removal and replacement), a male audience member in the front row had the gall to wolf-whistle her; she and her stagemates whipped their heads around to glare at the offender and if looks could kill… In any case, he didn’t do it twice. The acrobatic feats the performers engaged in were similarly desexualised, and it was refreshing to see the women displaying their impressive physical skills without any veneer of performance for the male gaze.
However, the problem was that the show needed to do more than just challenge gender roles to be entertaining, and unfortunately it just didn’t have the substance necessary. We caught glimpses of the performers’ formidable acrobatic skills, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were holding back from properly exhibiting these talents or challenging themselves (and us) in any way except perhaps intellectually. It was too niche and conceptually obscure for a huge, classic circus venue such as the Roundhouse. And I didn’t see much evidence of the promised punk or radioactivity.