Amaluna. Cirque du Soleil. Amsterdam, 9 April 2016.
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
Shakespeare and circus may seem to belong to two diametrically opposite sides of the cultural spectrum: the elitist reputation of the dramatist’s work might seem to preclude any meaningful connection with the more democratic spirit of the circus, which speaks to young and old, highbrow and lowbrow alike, and besides, usually does not require a great deal of linguistic understanding. Like a concert, a circus can equally well be appreciated by those who do not speak the local language. The visitors to the Cirque du Soleil show accordingly spoke a variety of languages, as became clear during the break; and the show itself made very little use of language, beyond some internationalese gibberish cried out by the clowns, and a few names that were repeated. There is only one exception: at the outset a voice announced (in Dutch) that the action was set on the island of Amaluna, where Miranda celebrated her coming of age today. The name Miranda and the setting on an island obviously called to mind Shakespeare’s Tempest; and indeed, insofar as a circus show can be said to have a plot, it appeared to be a homage to Shakespeare’s last play on the occasion of the quatercentenary of his death. Obviously, a circus production is more about bodily skills than about profound visions of Shakespeare’s work, and the Tempest plot was little more than a skeleton, and an excuse for displays of juggling and acrobatics. In the case of Cirque du Soleil, these acts were supplemented by atmospheric pageantry, combining ballet, music, stunning costumes, lighting, and visual effects. In this review, however, I will focus on the Shakespearean elements in the plot that held it all together.
At first, we saw Miranda in her childlike innocence, playing a ball-game with a reptile man called Cali, obviously a reference to Caliban. His reptilian body, with a huge moveable tail, was somewhat reminiscent of Gator Man, the Caliban equivalent in Jack Bender’s 1998 Tempest film adaptation. On the occasion of her maturity, Miranda went through a ceremony of initiation, involving acrobatics on the edge of and sometimes in a huge transparent bowl of water, while another female acrobat descended like a goddess from the trapeze; on account of the show’s title, let us call her the Moon goddess. She gave Miranda a glass ball, which appeared to symbolise her womanhood. Next, the scene changed to a huge storm conjured up by a female magician called Prospera. Apart from loud music, light and sound effects, this storm was suggested by trapeze artists doing wild whirls. In the aftermath, Prospera hauled in a fishnet with some castaways. These started when they saw the reptile men who peopled the island, and later also confronted a group of Amazon-like female warriors. From the castaway group, two individuals were separated off: a young man called Romeo, who was the Ferdinand equivalent; and a clownesque older man in a bicorne hat, called Papulya. In a comic subplot, the latter was found by his female counterpart Maïna, a fat woman in charge of Miranda, who appeared to be based on the nurse of Romeo and Juliet. While Romeo and Miranda went through their serious love affair, Maïna and Papulya enacted their burlesque version of wooing, with some mildly bawdy clowning—the show was after all meant for the entire family. At one point, Papulya imitated several animals while courting Maïna, including a donkey, perhaps in allusion to the Midsummer Night’s Dream; at another, he serenaded Maïna, who was standing on a higher level, with a rose in his hand, somewhat reminiscent of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Otherwise, Maïna kept on trying to find Miranda, and called after her much like the nurse calls after Juliet.
Yet the main action paralleled The Tempest. Romeo and Miranda fell in love at first sight, and joined their hands in holy palmer’s kiss. Miranda gave her glass ball to him, and engaged in acrobatic displays in the water bowl with her lover; meanwhile, Cali saw them and reached out to her outside the bowl, in a gesture of frustrated longing after his childhood friend. Also Prospera tried to separate the lovers. At the point where, in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo/Ferdinand would have carried logs, a juggler performed a balancing act involving a vast number of sticks, a delicate job requiring huge patience, as shown when, at Prospera’s command, she removed a single stick, which brought down the entire structure.
We moved to the climax when Cali abducted Miranda to the top of the tent. Romeo tried to follow them, laboriously climbing a pole, sliding down several times, stopping his fall just inches above the ground. At last he managed to reach a trapeze installation and catch up with Miranda. Ultimately, he confronted Cali in a fight, and defeated him. Prospera now granted him Miranda’s hand, and the performance ended with their marriage amid general festivity. Prospero’s jealousy was transferred to Cali, and the latter’s attempt to rape Miranda was transformed into an abduction intended to keep his childhood sweetheart from his rival. The political theme was entirely omitted, so that the plot turned on a young woman’s coming of age and discovering love. The exotic setting was retained, but the otherness of the picturesque islanders was simply taken for granted, not problematized from a post-colonial perspective.
All this was, perhaps, only marginally related to Shakespeare’s original. Yet in the author’s own age, travelling players also visited the continent playing to audiences who hardly knew any English; clowning, acrobatics, and simplified plots must have been the staple of these performances as well. In that respect, the performance by Canadian Cirque du Soleil in Amsterdam can also be seen as a return to Shakespeare’s beginning, on the European continent anyway.