Circus Oz play with perspective and the Australian identity in their latest show
Circus Oz’s new artistic director, Rob Tannion, had to walk a very tight rope when embarking on his vision for the country’s most famous circus troupe: he had to maintain the flavour and identity of the company while gently nudging it into more demanding contemporary spaces. Circus Oz have been doing variations of the same thing – quite successfully, it should be noted – for decades, and Tannion needed to respect the tone and spirit of the past just as he forged the way ahead. Model Citizens goes a long way to achieving this aim, and provides a taste of what we can expect from this national treasure in the future.
Famous for its muscularity, its bold and rambunctious approach to circus art, and its unapologetic political messaging, Circus Oz is worlds away from the kind of pristine perfectionism of Chinese circus. If anything, this production is more overtly political than its predecessors, although the rambunctiousness seems slightly muted. This could be due to a shortage of large-scale full-ensemble numbers; apart from a fairly hesitant acrobatic routine that opens the show and a more thrilling aerial routine that closes it, most of the numbers are either solo or double acts.
Taking as its central image the modelling kits of childhood, the production asks what it means to be a model citizen, taking aim squarely at Peter Dutton’s proposed changes to citizenship laws. Championing the outsider, and delivering a powerful argument for diversity and inclusion, the show uses multiple techniques to make its point. Laurel Frank’s magnificent costumes define the status quo with their colour-block blues and whites, offset by the neon pink hair on our master of ceremonies and chief outsider, Mitch Jones. Two hilarious songs – one an ode to the Weber bbq and one a daring take on NIMBYism – skewer some persistent national myths. And the script constantly throws out subversive one-liners that pillory cultural homogeneity and conservatism.
Many of Circus Oz’s regular cast members join several new performers, and the resultant energy lift is obvious. Jarred Dewey brings a feline-like grace and flexibility to everything he does, and Freyja Edney is superb in a nonchalant hula hoop routine. She and Jones bring a strange and dangerous sexuality to a knife-throwing act, and Alex Weibel Weibel is dazzling as a tightrope-walking violinist. Lachlan Sukroo is charming in an aerial act involving a pair of giant undies, and Luke Ha is terrific in an act involving stacked giant credit cards.
Few of the acts could be called revolutionary, with the exception of Weibel Weibel’s, but they are performed with such gusto and goodwill that it rarely matters. The Chinese pole is under-utilised, and Tania Cervantes Chamorro’s aerial routine is fairly pedestrian, but a reworked variation of Olivia Porter’s highly idiosyncratic juggling act is an improvement from last year, and the presence of regular performer Matt Wilson helps tie the production to its traditions.
The main addition Tannion brings is a heightened sense of theatricality and design panache, with odd and affecting touches of surreality and surprise. The show carries hints of Brisbane-based Circa’s blending of theatrical forms, along with the occasional nod to Cirque du Soleil’s approach to music, but loses none of the bolshy wit and bravado that audiences have come to associate with this company. If it’s an indication of where they’re heading, it’s a very encouraging one.