I love a good circus and this is a very good circus. Cirque Berserk! takes finely-honed, traditional big-top skills and distills them into a non-stop, adrenaline-fuelled, theatrical spectacle. Tumblers soar through the air and limbo under fire; aerialists swoop and spin, hanging by their ankles, necks, or teeth; motorbikes roar round a Globe of Death; and a contortionist from Mongolia shoots a bow and arrow with her feet while doing a handstand. It’s exhilarating for kids and adults alike. The excellent soundtrack – a sort of punk-gypsy-Victorian melodrama mashup – drives things along. Even the clowns are pretty funny. And there’s no safety net.
The show represents the third reinvention of modern circus since wild animals were banned, following the gothic cool of Archaos and the bombastic whimsy of Cirque du Soleil. Berserk! acknowledges that the art form is both naff and heroic, cheesy grins and spangles wrapped around death-defying acts or obsessively perfected, ridiculously rarefied skills.
The show cranks the skill level up a notch. The Timbuktu Tumblers flow through rings and under fiery rods like water, but they also build their collective bodies into boggling abstract shapes. I’ve previously seen two motorbikes whizz around inside a too-small lattice globe like angry hornets, but I’ve never seen a smiling showgirl stand at the epicentre of all that roar and exhaust. The hand-balancing of Ireland’s Garcia Brothers is truly gobsmacking in its controlled strength and precision. The aerial routines are all beautiful: but a display of mirrored, interlocking poses on a ring up among the lighting rig is breathtaking.
I confess I’m biased. I once spent a week rehearsing with Archaos and also, unconnectedly, had a relationship with a trapeze artist who taught me to look out for really difficult moves, like the neck hang that Berserk’s aerialist insouciantly pulls off here. Oh, and I tried knife throwing - disastrous compared to the act Czech duo Toni and Nikol pull off here, an old-school, heart-in-mouth display of hatchets and flaming blades aimed at a woman spinning on a turntable.
Some things about circus never change: the swagger of the men and the revealing costumes of the women. Berserk’s chief clown, Paulo dos Santos, is 3’6” and much fun is made of the disparity in height with his lofty stooge. But as well as being a gifted comedian dos Santos is a powerful and skilled acrobat, who gets his own graceful aerial routine. If there’s a political point to be made about this show, it’s surely that it celebrates internationalism and diversity.
Oops, sorry. Got carried away there. I just love the way this vibrant art – centuries-old but codified in its modern form in London by Philip Astley in 1768 – stays traditional but keeps reinventing itself. Circus will never die. Even if you go for the juggler.
Until 11 Sept: cirqueberserk.co.uk