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  • Chris O'Rourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: The Circus Animals' Desertion

The Circus Animals Desertion. Photo by Fionn McCann


A chocolate fudge chips and jam coffee and raspberry pizza

Ezra Pound allegedly hated cats. Even so, he would often feed the stray cats of Rapallo, Italy, where he lived, prompting W.B. Yeats to declare that Pound must have had some general pity for the outcast and the oppressed. This lesser known anecdote informs the visual and thematic vocabulary of Brokentalkers’ latest production, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion,’ just as much, if not more than, Yeats’ poem which gives it its title. Indeed, with such a broad referencing of Yeats, his poetry, drama, philosophy, history and interest in automatic writing, along with found text, sequences of nine, circular patterns, dance, music, mask, Hitler, Mussolini, Chic, The Cure, Irish dancing, Noh theatre, the Grand Guignol and whatever you're having yourself, anything and everything gets blended together into the cornucopia which is ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion.’ Indeed, Yeats’ poem serves as just one, very small ingredient in an overly luscious dish. One which, theatrically and thematically, brings too many ingredients together resulting in a meal that just doesn’t taste as good as it could have.

Seven years in the making, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is a response to Yeats as poet and theatre maker, with the key word here being response. For no matter how often he is referenced, it's a re-presentation, re-evaluation and reinterpretation of the man and his work that often speaks more to Brokentalkers then it does to the man himself. A work that sets out to interrogate the notion of nationalism. Not Irish nationalism, but nationalism in the abstract. Indeed, with its referencing of guns and killing and preparing young men for war in defence of their country, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ seems to speak more to an ROTC American style nationalism than to that of a contemporary Ireland, which many see becoming more international than national. At times ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ skirts close to directly tackling something of the growing right wing bigotry and racism creeping into Irish society, but always it slips away into the safe confines of the abstract. Indeed, the whole often feels like a self-referential conversation between academics, trading in jokes and references they alone seem to get. Ireland is an island and a mythological one at that. So too is Hawaii. That's enough for a link right there and if you don’t get it then you can always resort to just taking whatever you want from ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion.’

Yet by Brokentalkers’ own admission, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is not random, unlike the automatic or stream of consciousness writing which inspired it. There’s a rigour and deliberateness to the less than satisfactory script by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. Developed in collaboration with Sean Millar, who delivers a remarkably intriguing score, and a choreographic sequencing by Jessica Kennedy, which is undoubtedly the best thing about it, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is far more successful when it gets beyond text, toying with its modern take on some of Yeats' theatrical sensibilities. Scenic and mask designs by Ger Clancy, Sarah Foley’s costume design, Kilian Waters projection design and Stephen Dodd’s lighting design all contribute magnificently to ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion's’ visually impressive staging with its clever use of masks, blood, camera and screen. The real highlight though is the impressive performances by Deirdre Griffin, Saara Hurme, Rebecca Journo, Eddie Kay and Martin McCann. If, at times, boiler suits and clenched fists look a little too obvious, a cat dance and a stunning sequence highlighting the restraint and constrictions of Irish dancing are a sheer delight to watch. The end, when it comes, is visually clever and intriguing, but once again is less powerful than the bodies on stage in performance, ably demonstrated by a chilling rendition of the theme music to 'The Mickey Mouse Club.'

Less ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ and more the darker side of ‘Twin Peaks’, the otherworldliness of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is always slick if not always powerful. If theatrically more successful than it is thematically, it still brings far too much to the table in both contexts. Positing the worrying idea that European history of the 1930’s might just be repeating itself, it never addresses the question directly, preferring to deal in abstractions. But simply talking about loving the horror of war and bathing a performance in blood with references to Fascist ideology and eugenics, feels like a side stepping of the issues. And all the while, Yeats recedes further into the distance. But he’s already seen it all before. “Players and painted stage took all my love. And not those things that they were emblems of.”

‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ runs at The Samuel Beckett Theatre as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival until October 8th

For more information, visit Samuel Beckett Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival

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