Shock troops of the Big Top

Don't get comfortable. Archaos aim to overload your senses
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The Independent Culture
Children have traditionally been eager to run away and join the circus. They may think twice after seeing Archaos - unless, of course, they want to spend their showbiz lives hurtling at 60mph on a high-powered motorbike round the inside of a five-metre-high metal lattice-work sphere known as the Globe of Death. Archaos have always majored on stunts like these Two Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse. Far removed from the cosy circus image of spangles and sawdust, their shows conjure up all those words beginning with "D": dangerous, death-defying, downright deranged.

The fact that the company is here at all must rank as one of their most death-defying stunts. At the 1991 Dublin Festival, high winds destroyed their circus-tent and after a prolonged legal dispute with the organisers, the company went into voluntary liquidation with debts no amount of buzzing chainsaws could cut through.

Thanks to a French government grant (they apparently like Archaos's inventiveness - can you imagine Virginia Bottomley expressing such enthusiasm for Billy Smart's?) and the tenacity of its writers Guy Carrara and Pierrot Bidon and the producer Adrian Evans, the company has made a Lazarus-like comeback. Their latest show, Game Over, cost pounds 2m and looks a million dollars.

If in previous incarnations Archaos have resembled Mad Max, they're now more Blade Runner. This is the world's first Techno circus. Performers recruited from all over the world tightrope-walk, juggle, trick-cycle, fold themselves into contortions to make your eyes water and get up to all manner of kinky things with bondage gear and a trapeze. All the while, a huge screen at the back of the stage flashes up random images and phrases such as "orphans in Rwanda". It's one big multimedia, sensory overdose.

In one typical tableau from the show at the air hangar-sized Palais des Sports in Paris last week, three trampolinists play basketball 30ft off the ground while a back-flipping woman and a unicyclist in a snorkel scuttle across stage. Stage-right, a loincloth-clad man suspended in a cage wails along to a beaty, Propaganda-esque backing track while a procession of wrestlers cavort along the screen. Game Over climaxes with a man staggering across the stage on fire in front of an immense mushroom cloud. As an encore, a volunteer stands in the middle of the Globe of Death while the two petrolhead bikers buzz round on their chunky Honda and Suzuki 125s, narrowly missing each other and singeing the volunteer's hair. Afterwards, she smiles more than a little nervously as she informs me: "They told me loads of stupid things before they started like, 'My carburettor isn't working very well.' I just stayed very, very still." Bad for the nerves, great for the show.

Evans dismisses the suggestion that there is too much stage business; "too much" is not a concept the company is familiar with. "The Archaos experience is overload," the producer asserts. "People will come out buzzing. It's a continuous wash. It might be too much for some people, but that's what they expect from Archaos. They expect a mad spectacle. They expect extremes."

What's it all about, then, this cavalcade of stunts that may have theatre- goers over the age of 30 reaching for the Nurofen? There is a running theme about the manipulation of information by Big Brother. The show opens with a squad of baton-wielding Robocop-types rounding up street people - at which point a red-coated newscaster on the screen blandly reassures us that "homelessness is now completely eradicated".

But Carrara, resplendent in a goatee and New Romantic quiff, is adamant that "we don't have a message". Tucking into a slice of quiche (no sign of British beef at this particular Anglo-French summit), he goes on: "We're not journalists or philosophers. We're just artists." France is, after all, the country that invented the idea of "l'art pour l'art". There are times when a British person at Archaos might feel like a Frenchman at a game of cricket: you haven't the faintest idea what's going on, but that won't stop you enjoying the spectacle.

"We don't know what is right or wrong because our head is not ready to assimilate all this information," Carrara continues. "It's a big surrealist painting in movement. There are a lot of symbols, but you're not obliged to read them all. Each person can see what he wants. That's important because Archaos make shows for the whole world. It's a universal language."

All the same, it seems that those conversant with the club scene will speak it most fluently. "Rave parties are an inspiration," Carrara freely admits. "It's a world of hypnotic images and collective emotion." "It will appeal most strongly to the 16 to 22 generation," Evans concurs, "those who are used to rave culture and are easy with television images. It's a show for the zapping age."

With its heady mixture of music, dance, film and performance, Game Over is a hard show to categorise. Evans, however, is very clear about what it is. "I'm proud to call it a circus. It's a dream fulfilment service. People love the idea of circus. It always used to be this romantic idea about other-worldliness. Then it got bad connotations because of the performing animals issue, and the old sawdust spectacle lost value. But Archaos is re-inventing it. It is still rooted in circus tradition - the ideas in the show are expressed through feats of physical skill - but they're re- investing circus with credibility and pride. Circus is like mime was. People used to say, 'Oh, mime - that's the naff thing Marcel Marceau does.' Then companies started doing physical theatre and people thought, 'Actually, this is all right.' Circus needs the whole spectrum, it needs Gerry Cottle and Billy Smart. Archaos provides another colour in the spectrum."

Whenever the Archaos circus comes to town, the fanfare of hype is deafening. During their 1991 tour, a story circulated that an Iraqi strongman had left the show to go and fight for Saddam in the Gulf War. It may have been of dubious authenticity, but it made the front pages. This time, the news that Lambeth Council has banned full-frontal male nudity on stage has grabbed the headlines. "Archaos puts willies up Lambeth," Evans laughs, lapping up the free publicity handed to him by the good burghers of Lambeth. "In the old showmanship tradition," he observes, "it provides a good way of pumping up the pre-show expectations."

Fortunately, the show lives up to those expectations. Game Over is an exhilarating assault on the senses. "It's our mission to shock society," Carrara proclaims. "People are afraid of crisis. In the cultural milieu, everyone tries hard to remain friends with as many people as possible. They're trying to please the middle-classes. It's a system that lowers the horizons and leads to conformity. We're not in that system. Other people make beautiful shows, but nothing dangerous. I like danger. I'm here to shoot society in the head."

So you might want to pack a tin hat along with the Nurofen.

Archaos's 'Game Over' is at the Brixton Academy (0171-924 9999) from tonight until 2 June