The Cirque du Soleil juggernaut rolls back into the Royal Albert Hall with ‘Totem’, returning to the UK following a run in 2011. As per, it’s a blockbuster affair: the Michael Bay-style production of contemporary circus (with stall ticket prices to match).
Written and directed by Robert Lepage, it’s a show with grand ambition – it aims to convey evolution from amphibians to beach posers, then explore outer space (although you might need to flick through the programme to get some of the finer points of this).
Cirque du Soleil certainly brings the spectacle. There’s a giant, skeleton-like acrobatics structure, a mechanised bridge that unfurls into different shapes, stage-level projections of lapping water, plus darting surround sound, all of which adds up to a sensory rush. Behind some giant reeds, a full band rocks it like we’re watching an ’80s stadium-rock tour.
Set and props designer Carl Fillion also does a good job of blending some of the circus standards – like juggling or the Chinese pole – into the colourful overall aesthetic of the production. The transitions between set pieces are smoothly and seamlessly done.
And, of course, there are some truly outstanding circus acts from the multinational ensemble. For that essential, tension-ratcheting combination of virtuoso skill and risk of failure, a towering troupe of mono-cyclists throwing bowls between each other provides one of the biggest buzzes of the night. The production loses momentum in a second half, however, that doesn’t substantially build on such pre-interval showstoppers.
There’s also a distinct whiff of cheese to some of the production’s tribal sequences. And while the show has fun with stereotypes – there’s a neat visual gag about apes, cro-magnons (early humans) and puffed-up businessmen – it doesn’t entirely escape some of circus’s own. There’s an ornamental quality to the solo female artists that feels only partly like a deliberate dig at male posturing.
Modern circus has changed a lot recently. The form-pushing, dynamic programming at CircusFest or the London International Mime Festival, for example, can leave Cirque du Soleil’s flashiness feeling a little empty. But ‘Totem’ is a rollercoaster and you go for the ride.