The Royal Albert Hall proves to be an excellent substitute for a big top as it plays host to Cirque du Soleil's now-customary January visit to London. This time the French-Canadian entertainment giant has brought Totem, its second collaboration with the Québécois wunderkind Robert Lepage, one of the world's greatest theatre-makers.
In characteristic Cirque-speak, the programme promises wonders: "Somewhere between science and legend, Totem celebrates our infinite potential, and traces Man's journey from the very beginnings of life on Earth to our ultimate desire to fly". No humble ambition, but one which – given Lepage's wizardry and the company's prodigious circus skills – you might feel that the show has a strong chance of pulling off. But while the piece is spectacularly vaunting, it also emerges as conceptually vacuous – the alleged theme a bombastic container for feats of dazzling virtuosic circus artistry performed by a 50-strong multi-ethnic cast.
The audience sits in a semicircle round a central island-disc. A bamboo thicket at the back hides the band that thumps out music ranging from tribal to New Age and in between there's an indeterminate space that magically metamorphoses into a surf-caressed beach, a quaking bog or molten magma et al through brilliant projections. At the start, the main disc is covered by what initially looks like a huge gangrenous pie but which turns out to be a turtle. A glittering entity entirely encrusted in glass facets (identified in the programme as Crystal Man) dangles down from the heavens and provides the spark that drives the world into crazy action. The shell is whipped away and its skeleton becomes a gym for a wild posse of lizard-like beings who acrobatically swing and flip around the bones.
Each of the acts that follow is internally beautifully structured on a rising arc of daring. But the show as a whole lacks any urgent sense of dramatic progression – the randomness of its sequence of turns a bizarre flaw in a piece that aims to illustrate our evolutionary progression from crawling creature to cosmonaut and our collective animal origins. Totem is at its best when it embodies that most endearing of evolved human propensities: the urge to practise to perfection stunts that are sublimely and elatingly pointless. You see this here in joyous acts such as the five female unicyclists who kick tin hats on one another's heads while pedalling around in ever trickier formulations; or the beautiful couple who may find sexual intercourse an anticlimax after the droll mating dance they perform as they tumble and clutch from the one trapeze.
But Totem's handling of its Darwin-figure is embarrassing (he graduates from monkey-petting observer to a juggler demonstrating the perpetual motion of particles in a funnel), and surely they must have had more sophisticated comedy even in the Cro-Magnon era than the portrayal here of relations between modern men in suits and our shaggy ancestors. More than one kind of missing link here, I fear.
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