Review: The Circus at Liverpool Playhouse Studio


By Nigel Smith

SECOND Year Young Directors studying with Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP) have the opportunity to either assist with one of the company’s in-house shows or to produce a full length studio production.

YEP Director Natasha Kondrashova and YEP Producer Nancy Msiska have taken the challenging route for their show that airs this weekend. They have chosen to stage a work which has never been performed in the UK, which is a translation of a play by the Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms.

Kharms’ subversive work got him into serious hot water and he was arrested for anti-soviet writing, dying of starvation in a prison hospital during the siege of Leningrad in 1942. He was 36 years of age. Much of his work remained unpublished for decades, and only since the 1970s did much of it begin to emerge into the public eye.

On the surface The Circus is a bizarre comedy, in which a troupe of circus performers attempt to put on a show, only to be repeatedly interrupted by a member of the public who wants to perform. Mr Vertunov is played here by a manically wild-eyed Darren Begley. Vertunov doesn’t seem to have much skill in anything at all but persists in trying to take the stage, eventually submerging the entire circus in water and killing the animal tamer’s trained shark. In an earlier scene he was eaten by the same shark, but let’s try not to worry about that.

Meanwhile the Ringmaster, played by an increasingly frustrated Graeme Flynn, attempts helplessly to keep control of proceedings, introducing a series of other performers played by the trio of Catherine Devine, Liv Hackland and Rosanna Harrison-Pope.

With novelty helium balloons as animals, inflatable costumes and an array of simple props, the show has something of a Pythonesque feel, but Kondrashova manages to balance the surreal comedy with a sense of mounting unease. There is something deeply sinister about the dogged determination of the circus troupe trying to perform their planned routines despite the chaos and destruction surrounding them. Meanwhile Vertunov’s unfailing optimism, despite his insistence on continuing to present performances that don’t fit the brief, cannot fail to make us wonder about the ill-fated Kharms himself, and the oppressive regime under which he worked.

With a creative team including artists from both YEP and LIPA, this short but extraordinarily layered and complex piece, played with astonishing clarity of vision, is a credit to all concerned.