CIRCUS
JUST SAYING the name out loud gives a clue to what the latest French circus is about. Pull a gallic pout and try it. Que-Cir-Que (cir- que-cir-que-cir-que-cir ... ). It's like jumping on a linguistic Circle line. And the idea of the endless circle lies at the heart of this stark, existentialist show. Think Beckett, not Barnum. Que-Cir-Que takes the phenomenon of alternative circus into the kind of territory French students answer questions on in their philosophy bac. And where the Cirque du Soleil had a cast of thousands, this circus has a cast of three. There's a wild, hairy, biker-type in a Gaultier skirt. There's a skinny Ghandi in underpants. And there's the object of their desire, slinky Emmanuelle, who eggs them on with a relish that's almost indecent.

On a bare circular stage with a central tent-pole (which might be a nod to the tree in Waiting for Godot), the trio plays out a cyclical narrative of seductions and rejections, male bondings and bust-ups. The series of dazzling acrobatic feats which unfold along the way seem almost incidental to the dynamics of this power-game. At first it's the strongman who gets the upper hand. He does things with a large metal swingboat that make Mr Motivator look like a girl's blouse - rocking it so violently that it threatens to topple into the front row, spinning it like a juice extractor, even sending it sliding down the slope of his own body and catching it with a thrust of his pelvis.

But the wimp is the one with his wits about him. He may submit to being a human shoe-shine stand as the he-man balances on top of him; he may suffer the humiliation of being scrunched up in a ball and thrown at the tent-pole - where he sticks, miraculously, like chewing gum. But when the hairy one shows off on a giant roto-wheel, spread-eagled like Michelangelo's perfect anatomical man, the skinny one cuts him down to size at a stroke with one mocking gyration of a limp bicycle inner tube.

Cruelly, Emmanuelle will have neither of them, preferring to direct her attentions to the phallic tent-pole, round which she performs on a floor- skimming flying trapeze, galloping over the ground using her arms and whipping herself up to a tigerish frenzy of onanism. (Defying death is old hat, Que-Cir-Que seems to be telling us. Sex is much more interesting.) Later, to drum home her contempt for male hubris, she fills her cheeks with water and spurts it, bit by bit (what you swear is more than a gallon) over her would-be lover.

If all this were performed with the bluster of regular circus, it would be absurd and not a little obscene. But these three outlandish virtuosos feign cool indifference to an audience. Even to applaud before the end seems an intrusion on their cruel mindgames. To say that Que-Cir-Que is utterly original wouldn't be quite true. It's an old, old story. Just not one you expect to see in a tent.

By contrast. The Brazilian clown Angela de Castro seems rather safe and quaint. She first came to notice as the panda-eyed stooge in Slava Polunin's Snowshow, but in her almost-solo show The Gift adopts a different character which, despite being 11 years in the developing, is very much less effective. The more masculine Souza has a beret and a nose like a large Jersey Royal, and is seen going through the agonies of waiting (more echoes of Beckett) for a date who never arrives. Though Souza's finer movements are beautifully studied, plot ideas are so woefully thin on the ground that the audience begins to feel stood-up itself. The inspired moments mostly derive from the props: a newspaper (the Indy, no less) which opens out into a king- size quilt; topiary hedges which hum the tune from The Godfather in harmony; a human cello whose face "tunes up" when Castro tweaks the pegs in her head. But ultimately The Gift has more wrapping than substance.

Que-Cir-Que: Highbury Fields, N5 (0171 288 6700), to Sun 5 Jul. Angela de Castro: Barbican Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), to Sat.

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