Having never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance before, I had only the vaguest idea of what to expect. Reading some reviews in advance, it was hard not to feel I was going to be underwhelmed.
The truth was, after an uncertain start, it blossomed into something exceptional. This wasn’t a circus show, so much as circus skills interwoven into an idiosyncratic story of loneliness, alienation, a journey into the unknown, followed by reconciliation. From the outset, I was captivated by the young girl, living with her bored, distant parents, escaping into the world of her dreams – or nightmares – by donning a blue bowler hat discarded by one of her spectral visitors. Throughout, I felt the guiding hand of Rene Magritte, as unofficial advisor to the production, made it impossible to capture one, unified meaning from such disparate elements as a headless, raincoat clad giant, faceless, shrouded crowds, stark individuality, structural confusion, bizarre props, manic energy and passive indifference, all delivered with rollicking good humour.
Woven into this tapestry were the astonishing skills Cirque du Soleil clearly specialises in. The sublime, and at times, almost ravishing aerial rope, trapeze and twisting cloth artists; an iron man weaving around the stage in a gigantic, spiralling metallic wheel; jugglers; an outlandishly strong, slow moving couple offering each other mutual support of a painstakingly demanding kind; synchronised skipping; human pyramids; clowning. Sometimes these episodes appeared contrived rather than part of the story; but since the story was so obscure, so free-form, a degree of licence seemed more than ordinarily permissible.
Having got so used to perfect symmetry in choreographed performances, it was at first jarring to see a more individual approach. A lot of the set pieces were (and for safety’s sake, needed to be) done in perfectly timed unison; but they initially struck me as woefully out of synch. Arms and legs would move independently rather than as a fluid whole. Heads would turn, seemingly at random. However, it soon became clear there was much needed room here for both mutual brilliance and personal differences. This was nowhere better exemplified than by the varied sizes and shapes of the performers, from tiny ladies to male hulks. Unlike the clones seen elsewhere, dressed identically and with set mannerisms, this was a endearingly motley crew.
One of my favourite touches was the structured randomness of some of the proceedings. I couldn’t tell if licence was given to members of the cast who weren’t immediately involved in the action to do as they pleased, or if this was scripted behaviour; but on repeated occasions I watched as individuals would rush from the curtains at the back of the stage, skip leisurely (in the delightful, cantering fashion of young children) through the melee to the front, adopt a posture there of demanding acknowledgement from the crowd (as often as not, failing to get it) and then skip back the way they had come. Pointless? Yes; but strangely fitting.
Then, there were the clowns, and the audiance participation. Although this element seemed to have no obvious connection to the story, and was the only scene that didn’t feature the girl in the blue bowler hat, the good humoured infliction of mild humiliation on the unsuspecting was uncomfortably reminiscent of unsought aspects of the dreamworld; and it got the loudest cheers of the night.
The one downside to the evening was that the Albert Hall was only three quarters full. For live performers, having all seats filled must not only say something about what they are doing, but affect the way they do it; and it is hard not to feel the management should adopt a similar policy to that of airlines for ensuring full capacity, by linking prices to demand.