How many of you can remember a time when your parents first brought you to the circus? No, I don’t mean the contemporary, theatrical Cirque du Soleil variety, which, of course, has its place. I’m talking about the REAL circus with the big top tent, heart-attack inducing animal shows and death-defying trapeze stunts.
Ok, I suppose not many of us can attest to watching live an animal trainer putting his head in a lion’s mouth, all the while half covering our eyes and trying our best not to wet our pants in sheer terror. After all, circus shows with wild animals have been banned in Singapore since 2002. And rightly so, given animal welfare concerns and the increasing danger to both animals and trainers.
Animals have, however, always been central to a circus show and with that gone, the shows never really seemed the same again. The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus (yes, the same P.T. Barnum popularised in the movie The Greatest Showman), possibly the world’s longest running circus show, came to a close after its final show in May 2017, after enthralling audiences for 146 long years starting way back from 1871. It too fell prey to the changing tide of entertainment options and the lust for instant satiety in the form of video games and all things accessible at the touch of a button.
That is why it was with great excitement that I greeted the thought of watching Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus.
Circus 1903 seeks to bring back the romance, magic and glamour of the circus at the turn of the 20th century when huge travelling sets toured from city to city in massive caravans loaded with animals and props. This was the golden age of circus with mysterious and breath-taking acts, edge-of-the-seat excitement, massive elephants and thrilling wild animal shows. Before there were Lady Gaga concerts and blockbuster movies, there was the circus.
And the elephants. The creators of Circus 1903 are so adamant the circus must have animals that they have recreated life-sized elephants with the award-winning puppeteers from the critically acclaimed play War Horse. I must admit I was a bit sceptical at the initial thought of it – a puppet elephant in a circus? How does that work? And how real can it get? But when they first appear on stage, you have to literally do a double-take as they are absolutely lifelike! Such is the magic of the circus. This segment itself is a tribute to the circuses of old as they showcase beautifully how animals would have been trained in the circus.
With acts as diverse as knife throwing, the amazing contortionist (or perhaps more aptly, dislocationist, as Ringmaster Willy calls it) Senayt Asefa Amare with her unbelievable flexibility, the elegant Cycling Cyclone Florian Blümmel with his masterful control of the bicycle, and extraordinary balance displayed by the Los Lopez high wire family act, you know you are in for a treat.
Perhaps quite unusually, it was not one of the death-defying acrobatic stunts that the crowd seemed to enjoy the most. That distinction belonged to the magnificent Mexican juggler Roberto Carlos. His speed of juggling was truly mesmerising and using the mouth to juggle ping pong balls was certainly something I’d never seen before!
The entire show is woven together masterfully by the hilariously funny David Williamson as Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade. As luck (or should we say magic?) would have it, we were the first group David interacted with before the show kicked off as he went around trying to warm up the crowd. Embarrassingly, we had no idea he was one of the top magicians in the world and thought he just came over for a chat!
When I asked my son during the intermission which was his favourite act, he unhesitatingly picked the moment before the show started when David pulled out a coin from under my son’s shoe with his marvellous sleight of hand. Indeed, Ringmaster Willy had the crowd in stitches whenever he interacted with the children who volunteered to go on stage.
Circus 1903 is full of thrills and spills, and by spills, we literally mean spills. When the talented TT Boys fell during their human foot juggling act, the audience let out a collective gasp and everyone’s hearts went out to Tamrat and Tomas in genuine concern. In moments like this, one is made painfully aware that these acts are not just polished performances churned out week after week, but also completely real and dangerous.
Such, however, is the indefatigable nature of the human spirit. Circus fan Ms Autumn Luciano surmises neatly in lamenting the loss of The Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus in a New York Times article: “Without circuses, we lose the ability to go and see that humans can do anything. You go to the circus and see human beings doing insane things, but the truth is, we all have the ability to do crazy things.”
In the most charming scene of the show, Ringmaster Willy turned to little three-year-old volunteer Leia and told her she’s going to have a most wonderful life because (before pausing to milk the moment for maximum effect), life is a circus. Awww….
And you’ll no doubt agree with me after watching Circus 1903 that the circus, too, is life.
Circus 1903: The Golden Age of Circus is playing now at the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands until 29 April 2018. Ticket prices start at S$65. To purchase tickets, visit Sistic online.