In Kneehigh's wonderfully cheeky, darkly fantastical stage version of Nights at the Circus, the celebrated magical realist novel by Angela Carter, there is a sequence calculated to unnerve any male theatre critic. A bespectacled man in a mac is lured over the footlights by a finger beckoning through the red plush curtain. He is then set upon by a group of theatre folk who berate him for taking notes. The culprit is Jack Walser, a sceptical reporter on The New York Times who is out to debunk the legend of the central character.
She is Fevvers, the Cockney Venus, a bird-woman who claims to have been hatched from an egg like Helen of Troy. In Carter's novel, she's a hefty, middle-aged 6ft 2in phenomenon. In this shrewdly filleted and reshaped adaptation by the director Emma Rice and Tom Morris, she is played by the youthful, slender, medium-sized Natalia Tena. It's arguable that this performer, with her pert, studded breasts and very modern streaked hair, is too straightforwardly sexy for such a smoke-and-mirrors character, but she's fiery and fierce, earthy and airy, a tempest and a tease, so you don't lose too much of the ambiguity that surrounds this circus aerialiste whose wings betoken both liability (she has to earn her living as a prize freak) and liberty (she's a portent of the New Woman).
The carnivalesque production keeps you guessing about the authenticity of Fevvers' half-bird origins. There's a wonderful scene in the St Petersburg section when her trapeze breaks and it looks for a dizzying moment that her bluff has been called. Walser, who has joined the circus to follow her, submitting to systematic humiliation as a clown, saves the day by expertly twirling her round on the rope as if the accident was part of the show.
Her feather-tipped wire wings certainly look like a theatrical prop. But then, contradicting that impression, there's the chilling scene, reminiscent of Jack the Ripper and Lulu, where a pervy stalker offers her diamonds in exchange for these pinions and starts to remove them with a knife.
Sizeable tracts of the novel have been excised - including the final Siberian section. But with the central couple eventually somersaulting in a rapturous aerial display of hard-won parity, Carter's myth has not had its wings clipped.
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