It's hard to tell which was commercially more inspired: the idea of pitching a Moroccan tented market along the South Bank, or that of presenting a Moroccan circus as the Centre's Easter holiday special. To judge by the excited buzz around the woman hennaing hands at £5 a pop, the souk was way ahead in terms of street cred.
The circus in question turned out to be an unusually low-key affair whose subtlety and charm took time to register. In Morocco the notion of offering a live spectacle to a paying public has barely moved on from medieval times. Five of the 12 tumblers in the South Bank show belong to a family that has been practising acrobatics on the sandy beaches of Tangier for seven generations. And they might have continued that way, blissfully ignorant of the existence of stage managers, risk assessments and bank holiday matinees, had they not been spotted by Aurélien Bory, director of a modish French conceptual-juggling group.
Bory immediately saw the naïf appeal of the Moroccans' beach routine, and to his credit has tried to preserve that innocence in Taoub, a seamless 70-minute spectacle that makes use of a large swathe of Arabic fabric in distinctly new-circus ways: as a backdrop for shadow illusions, as a giant wedding dress, or to picture the sand dunes of the Sahara with bold simplicity.
But just as exotic as these artful enchantments is the sight of men nimbly hopping on and off each other's shoulders wearing the djellaba, the traditional ankle-length tunic that might have been expressly made to hamper such activity. The garments' blank white surfaces, lined up neatly in a row, also find a new purpose as a mobile screen, showing live videocam images of a girl's acrobatic eyebrows, or life-size projections of Western dress - a suit, or flowered swimming trunks - which look suddenly absurd.
Music is provided by an oud-player sitting cross-legged on the floor, who at unexpected moments breaks off from his twanging to help with the acrobatics: serving as a human fencepost in a tightrope of clasped male hands, or contributing to the strength of a manual trampoline that sends bouncers 30 feet up, and even more astoundingly catches them.
The only other sounds beyond the acrobats' cheerful yelps are guttural call-and-response songs, the Arabic equivalent of oggi-oggi-oggi, modulated from a whisper to a roar. But unschooled charm is hard to pull off on a London stage, and there were physical blips in this show that high spirits failed to cover. In the end, the most successful gags were the ones you could imagine on that Tangier beach. To stumble on such casual magic would be something.
'Taoub' will be performed at the Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick, today at 3pm (024 7652 4524)Reuse content