Exactly 250 years ago, an English equestrian named Philip Astley laid the foundation for the modern circus. A lot has changed since then, but the heart of the circus – the manic energy, the jaw-dropping feats of superhuman skill, the fun – remains the same as it ever has.
It’s this heart that beats at the core of NoFit State Circus’ new show, Lexicon, which is currently playing as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.
A celebration of the history of circus, Lexicon actually has a subtitle: the art of misbehaving. While the theme doesn’t come through in the show’s thin narrative – excluding the opening skit, which sees rows of old-fashion school desks suddenly ascend into the air at the whim of rebellious students – it certainly can be felt in the raw, almost chaotic energy that flows through the Big Top.
Performers interchange positions on the stage, in the rigging, and on the bandstand throughout the show, at all times in view of the audience. It’s like watching pistons in an engine, all driving away to bring Lexicon to life. As a result, it doesn’t just feel retro. It feels real. The stripped back production value can be a bit distracting at times (especially during matinee shows, as artists move in and out of the tent, causing external light to ruin some effects) but those who go in expecting it won’t find that reason to complain.
In the ring, the young performers carry out a range of feats, from hooping to fire juggling, all with a dose of slapstick that children and adults alike will appreciate. Of particular note is the unicycling, which fills a large portion of the show’s two hour, fifteen minute run-time for good reason. If, like me, you thought a row of glasses couldn’t possibly sustain the weight of a unicyclist riding over their bases, prepare to think again.
Much of Lexicon takes part in the air, including a memorable trapeze act that starts off slow before reaching incredible heights. While certainly impressive, many of them serve only to slow down the pace; a necessity, perhaps, but there’s no doubting that the show is at its best when it’s at its most frantic.
Where Lexicon makes up for the distracting pacing is in the music. Performing everything from upbeat jazz numbers to gothic melodies, the band is so spectacular that I often found myself watching them instead of the stage. It’s a surprise to see musicians of this calibre working live in support of a circus, and even more surprising to see members, a few set pieces later, dancing in the air with the other actors.
If there’s anything the show is notably lacking, it’s innovation. Audience members relatively fresh to the circus, especially children, are bound to love everything about Lexicon. More seasoned viewers might be expecting more from director Firenza Guidi and her troupe though. Something that made use of the theme, and brought something new to the way it was portrayed.
Regardless, nobody is leaving Lexicon having had anything but a good time. The character of the show and its performers outshines any of the minor imperfections, and make Lexicon a must-see for any Melbourne International Arts Festival patrons on the search for fun.
Lexicon plays as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 3rd – 21st.