When Cirque du Soleil last rolled into town in 2001 with Quidam (it’s pronounced key-dam, Latin for an anonymous passer-by), Battersea Power Station formed a colossal art deco backdrop to a fairy-tale “Grand Chapiteau” circus tent, bringing a faint whiff of traditional sawdust to a rather arty spectacle which seemed to owe rather more to the surreal paintings of René Magritte than the thrills and spills of the big top.
Now that Quidam is back and playing the red plush Royal Albert Hall for the first time before embarking on a UK tour, it seems even less like circus as we know it and even more like the worst nightmare of a mad ringmaster. Disturbing visions, such as a headless figure with an umbrella, wander on and off stage to a Eurobeat soundscape, along with scary masked automatons wearing white radiation suits and an ugly brute of a clown brandishing boxing gloves.
If there is something of the night about this show, then it’s all down to a young girl called Zoe (Ella Bangs). Ignored by her parents, she falls prey to her imagination and invites these weird and wondrous creatures into the family home as her imaginary friends, while mum and dad float from the ceiling oblivious to the strange happenings below. That’s the thematic back-story threading the various acts together, so maybe there’s a lesson to be learned – don’t take your kids for granted or you’ll have the entire cast of Quidam turning up in your front room.
There would certainly be a welcome on anyone’s mat for the four dinky little Chinese girls who perform amazing synchronised back-flips while spinning wooden diabolos into a fabulous frenzy of string. And yes, you do get plenty of traditional “ooohs” and “aaahs” amidst the self-conscious moodiness of Quidam, especially when a 15-strong troupe of raggedy Russians perform spectacular sequences of precision acrobatics and achieve impossible-looking human pyramids without a single wobble.
There are audible gasps of amazement too as sexy aerial contortionist Isabelle Vaudelle defies gravity while dangling her limp torso from red silk drapes. And real magic is in the air when Anna Vicente and Jerome Le Baut, a lithe couple who emerge from nowhere as eerie-looking living statues, then slowly morph their two separate bodies into one extraordinary humanoid.
Once drawn in to the fantastical world of Quidam, it’s hard to remain an anonymous bystander. But as for the unfunny clowns, frankly my dear I don’t give a key-dam.
- Roger Foss
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from November 2001 and this production’s original London run.
"Oh What A Circus,/Oh What A Show!", goes a line in Evita, but it could also be a precis of my reaction to Cirque du Soleil's Quidam.
The Canadian-based circus super-troupers have created a new global brand based on the universal language of enchantment, but the skill of it - and the thrill of it - is that it has built this from a beautifully crafted distillation of old tricks. So there's the reassuring tug of tradition, but also the constant delight, detail and danger of how it has reassembled those component parts into a sleekly contemporary entertainment.
So, for example, it may take place inside a tent, as all old-style circuses do, and even has the hard wooden benches in the rear parts to remind your rear parts of the sense memory of them. But the Grand Chapiteau, as they've grandly called their grand tent, is otherwise quite magical in its own right. And it's mercifully heated, too. Just to approach its glistening, illuminated silver domes, sited in London next to the austere, industrial cathedral-like beauty of the hulking frame of Battersea Power Station, is to be filled with wonder.
And that's before the show has even begun. And then you enter, and again, there's something missing, yet also something familiar. There's no smell of sawdust or horse dung here, though the air is, again reassuringly, heavy with the pungent smell of butter popcorn in the foyers.
The show likewise takes you to strange yet familiar places. This all-human, occasionally super-human, event sometimes seems more like an expertly designed and choreographed evening of performance art or a piece of musical theatre (Cats meets Barnum, and a bit of Bailey) that utilizes traditional circus skills and dance to provide a playground for the imagination.
A huge metallic arch divides the tent in two, and provides a grid from which performers enter, suspended in the air, to perform magical aerial acts. Nothing is earthbound here, not even gravity or weight, which are constantly defied as human pyramids are constructed or extraordinary balancing acts are achieved. There is something poetic and sculptural, balletic and athletic, about the fantastical feats on display. An ethereal, reflectively haunting soundtrack, performed live, accompanies them.
Interspersing the astonishment are the inevitable clowns; and if in my view a little of Cirque's clowns go a long way, then unfortunately rather a lot of them here go a little way. But even if they are resistible - as is the relentless commercialisation of it all - what you see on stage is still a rare kind of magic.
- Mark Shenton