Cirque du Soleil is a brand, a hugely successful way of touring circus internationally. As such, its shows are predictable. Before you go, you know you'll get the elaborate make-up, the vague storylines, the singing that gestures at rock, opera and world music. Yes, the circus skills will be remarkable; yes, there will be bad clowns.
Varekai, written and directed by Dominic Champagne, comes to the Royal Albert Hall for a long run. The plot this time, not that it matters, is built around an Icarus figure. A winged man descends, but doesn't exactly fall. Nobody dies in Cirque du Soleil: the dramas have vague uplift rather than conflict or action. Instead, Icarus learns cosmic wisdom from the others, and lives happily ever after with the lead contortionist.
Unfortunately, most of the other characters are clowns. Cirque du Soleil characterisation comes from its immediately recognisable make-up – the thick-painted eyebrows and shadowed cheeks. The clowns are cast as Guide and Skywatcher, but there's really no difference in their material. They all witter on in no recognisable language.
Varekai soon sets up a pattern of alternating clown and circus acts. Even the jugglers and trapeze artists are subjected to the Cirque du Soleil glossing process: they gesture between tricks, wriggle in complicated costumes, submit to more rock opera. The pace drops, however fine the technique.
Happily, a few acts are more simply – and therefore more spectacularly – presented. With all its waffle, Cirque du Soleil does have impressive performers, acts that really can make you catch your breath.
The show ends with Russian Swings. The swings are huge, big enough to take two or three people. Having built up momentum, the acrobats are shot into the air, somersaulting or wriggling, to be caught by their partners. Sometimes pairs cross in mid-air, diving and tumbling. The "Icarian Games", starring Roni and Stiv Bello, were even better.
It's all so fast, and sometimes so risky, you can forget the Cirque's orchestration of wonder, and watch in honest amazement.
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