(Royal Albert Hall, London, 1 February 2014)
Something a little different today; and this is going to be a largely image-based post, for which I make no apology. Words only go so far with the Cirque du Soleil: it is first and foremost a dazzling spectacle, a delicious selection-box of acts celebrating the grace, strength and power of the human body. We’d never been to any of their performances before, but for this year’s birthday treat I was whisked off to see Quidam at the Royal Albert Hall. What a magnificent setting that is for a circus! – where else in London do you have quite the same feeling of being inside a luxurious big-top? And, over the course of the next two hours, a whole new world opened up before us: a gorgeously stylised magical other-where.
The framing narrative follows a bored little girl called Zoe, who is stuck inside with her parents on a wet afternoon. Her parents, bourgeois and grown-up, have lost the ability to appreciate the magic in life; and so Zoe is the only one who can see the mysterious visitor who arrives at their door, leaving behind a purple hat. To Zoe’s delight, this hat transforms her surroundings and, in the company of the clowns John and La Cible, she sets off on a fabulous adventure into a new dimension of strange and wonderful creatures. Celebrating childlike wonder – but never confusing childlike with childish – this is a playful, exuberant and incredibly atmospheric show.
All the acts were stunning, but I had some particular favourites. One was the Roue Allemande, or German Wheel, in which a man within a giant metal wheel used his bodyweight to set up a dizzying, whirling spin across the stage. Then there were the Statues, a man and a woman painted to look like marble, who used one another’s bodyweight to create and hold incredible postures. The most astonishing was the moment when the female Statue balanced upside down on her partner’s shoulders, arms outstretched, resting only on the back of his neck with the back of her neck. No hands. Even when changing positions, they moved so slowly that it must have tested their muscles to the max: it wasn’t the flashiest of the acts, but for sheer physical achievement it took some beating.
And then there were the acrobats, a group of men and women who came on dressed in brown and grey rags and leather caps, like some kind of 1920s’ coal-miner / steampunk-aviator chain-gang. (The make up and costumes throughout the show are glorious, creating a consistent look for all the performers while allowing each group a very distinctive identity.) A trio of tiny girls and a boy in white braces went tumbling through the air, and the act closed with a human tower that actually had me sinking into my seat, convinced that it could never work… but of course it did. It all made for two hours of complete and utter wonder.
The sheer physical skill and command of these performers is remarkable. Whether tumbling through red silk banners, swinging out over the audience on hoops, or executing complicated skipping routines, they give the impression that it simply cannot go wrong. I didn’t spot a single mistake in our show – and of course part of the risk is that you forget how immensely difficult it is to pull this off so well. As the press reported last year, things can and do go wrong. We were sitting right at the front, which allowed us to fully appreciate the colour and energy, but also to watch the performers’ faces and appreciate the physical strain beneath the beauty of the show. It all goes to emphasise how skilled and professional these wonderful people are.
Apparently this is the last time that Quidam will be performed in the UK, so get your skates on because there isn’t much time left! I imagine it will continue to run in other countries, and if you do ever get the chance to see it, grab it with both hands. You can see the official preview trailer here to get a taste of it. And if you’ve seen any of Cirque du Soleil’s other shows, let me know in the comments. Which ones have you seen? What was the concept behind them? What were your favourite acts? After all, I have to know which one we should look out for next!