The magic of Cirque du Soleil's Varekai, back at the Albert Hall to mark the company's 25th anniversary, is dissipated early on when a tiny Tinkerbell-ish light with a squeaky voice hovers over the stage and thanks the corporate sponsors of the show.
That's about the last we hear of any recognisable language, as the rest of the show - structured loosely around the Icarus myth - is narrated in the invented tongue of the land of Varekai (which translates as 'wherever' in Romany). There's something slightly troubling about a company supported by American Express professing to celebrate the “nomadic soul” of gypsy culture.
The acts are a mixed bag; the climactic Russian Swings bring much-needed energy and danger, while a troupe of dancers on a slippery surface prove a damp squib. Light relief is competently provided by stumbling clowns 'Joanna and Steven', and there's an impressive turn from 'Limping Angel' Dergin Tokmak, who somehow manages to breakdance on crutches.
Stéphane Roy's set, featuring an over-arching metallic walkway and a forest of spikes, is spectacular, but never utilised to maximum effect, while Violaine Corradi's score, despite promising to “conjure up the unique musical universe of Varekai”, is an ineffectual hotchpotch of classical pop and yodelling.
Varekai, the brainchild of director and writer Dominic Champagne, is let down by a mismatch between concept and content. And while it's a neat and professional package, as one would expect, there's a definite lack of the 'wow' factor that one has come to expect from Cirque shows over the years. Although the celebrity-filled press night audience was on its feet by the end, I was left scratching my head.
- Theo Bosanquet
NOTE: The following TWO STAR review dates from January 2008, and this production's original run at the Royal Albert Hall
“We’re saving the planet.” No, that’s not the message of Cirque du Soleil’s latest show Varekai (recently acclaimed in Belgium), but the rebuttal of the press desk denying critics a programme. I passed on the option of buying £9 worth of cloying, badly-written guff from the ushers.
For many years, I’ve nurtured a love/hate relationship with Cirque. I love the acrobatics, the contortionists, some of the costumes, the amazing trapeze work and the juggling. I hate the New Age conceptualism of transcendental journeys, the ghastly cross-cultural rock-schlock music, the narrative obfuscation, the physical vegetarianism of it all.
There is no story to Varekai, written and directed by Dominic Champagne (part of the Cirque’s “new generation”), which posits up front an aerial version of the mythical story of Icarus, a bright spark, brilliantly enacted in dangerously diving swing hammocks by Mark Halasi.
Instead of being incinerated by flying too close to the sun, he ends up in a Balinese-style other world with a balletic princess (Irina Naumenko) who is either super-supple or strangely boneless: she can tickle her own chin with her left foot while supporting herself on a pedestal – with one hand!
As usual with Cirque, there are several false starts and most of these involve the deeply unfunny clowns, a girl (Joanna Holden) who smirks and slips over a lot and exposes her not very attractive rump, and a joke chap (Steven Bishop) who provides the lowest moment of the evening in darting between rogue spotlights while pointlessly massacring one of Jacques Brel’s greatest melancholic songs, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”.
Four wonderful trapeze dancers sculpt the air as though doing a turn in The Nutcracker and two male lookalikes (Andrew and Kevin Atherton, no relation of Mike, I presume; check that over-priced programme) whizz magically through the Albert Hall vaults on spring-loaded aerial straps wearing cutaway black bodices and Inca hairstyles.
Each act ends with gratuitous virtuosity. The first finale is a deeply tedious Georgian dance by everyone in the cast dressed in shades of red, stomping and stupid. The second is something else (but just as stupid): hordes of Russians in gladiator body stockings and spiky wigs – there’s a strange sort of sea anemone/mollusc/crustacean feel to the whole evening – flying off two swings in acrobatic formation with triple somersaults.
It brings the audience to its feet, which is where it wanted to be all evening (in my case, perhaps, walking as well). You begin to wonder: how easily and carelessly devised, with sufficient money, must a spectacular be to please its audience? Give me the ice and magic shows at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach any night of the week.
- Michael Coveney