The Cardiff-based NoFit State Circus has built for itself a stellar reputation: its contemporary performances and promenade shows have toured to major cities across the UK and the rest of the world. In 2018, its roaming big-top tent – the “spaceship” – finds a home nestled between the narrow streets of Newcastle-under-lyme, Staffordshire. This little-known market town appears to be an odd match for such an avant-garde circus company, and yet, it is rich in circus history. The birth-place of Philip Astley – inventor of the modern circus – Newcastle is one of numerous nationwide locations to participate in the Circus 250 celebrations.
In the 250th anniversary year of the modern circus, it is fitting that NoFit State looks to its heritage for inspiration. This spring, buried within the gilded tent, is an original blend of past, present and future circus narratives. Lexicon – aptly named for its melding of old and new circus vocabularies – launches headfirst into the memory of the ring and the stories of the individuals whom inhabit it. Walking into NoFit State's first in-the-round production, we are met by the company's playful disposition: rogue-characters wander beneath the tiered seating and above, they meander between spectators who are busy locating their one, “perfect” seat.
Settling down, we observe a complex system of exposed rigging – a trademark of NoFit State's ingenuity and collaborative connectivity. Throughout the ensuing performance, cast, crew and musicians are forever switching roles – a quality that sets the circus apart from more traditional troupes. Breaking the rules is one of Lexicon's specialities: the show opens with a classroom in which grounded desks soon take flight above the central auditorium. Pupils toss paper planes and juggle balls between one another until an abrupt storm announces the beginning of an elegant yet melancholic aerial straps routine. Soaring high above the ring, the lone male performer provides a sobering and meditative counter-point to the classroom mischief.
Lexicon rises above the rule-makers: it interjects moments of hilarity – delivered by acrobats, fire-jugglers and foot-jugglers whom never take themselves too seriously – with fiercely passionate instances of daring feats or moments of burning stillness. A trio of Cyr Wheelers attempt to collectively rotate in one wheel; performers comically accost “hybrid” bicycles; and a unicyclist delivers remarkable stunts despite being continuously duped by his fellow cast. In contrast, a hand balancer contemplatively moves his way across the arena on stilts and a jilted bride sheds the weighty fabric of her gown while ascending in a double ropes act. In another instance, the entire company join together to perform animalistic movements which mimic the circus animals that were once choreographed by the ring-leader's whip.
Music and set-design play major roles in Lexicon. Strikingly, the performance is led by a live ensemble whom recite spoken word and poetry, sing folk songs and rhythmically accompany acts with a transient presence – we are enraptured by the seamless melody, often forgetful of their live delivery. As well as harkening back to the Victorian circus's live band, the musicians enforce the show's authenticity: those involved are ordinary people who, collaboratively, bring a sense of magic and timelessness to a contemporary audience. Lighting, props and rigging are also carefully sequenced to provide an innovative transition between individual acts.
Wholesome, hopeful and mischievous, Lexicon excels in its ability to converge NoFit State's style of misbehaving with longstanding circus traditions. It kicks with a vivacious playfulness and conjures historical references while dispelling hierarchies – an ethos that runs throughout the company. Performers balance upside down and subsequently begin playing an instrument or climb the rigging to counterweight fellow cast members's aerial feats – it's an energising joy to experience such a collaborative production in the flesh.
With tinges of Victorian costume throughout – male acrobats wear suspenders and women adorn bloomers – the audience is drawn back to a bygone Britain when the modern circus was first founded. Simultaneously, the spectator is thrown into new, frightening territories: as visitors to this timeless realm, we are enamoured by the portrayal of universal human emotions and moved by a multi-lingual performance – a poignant reminder that the circus is not one country but many; its company not one, but many individuals.
NoFit State, Lexicon: until 21 April, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 26 May-9 June, Cardiff Bay.
Read my interview with artistic director, Tom Rack, on The Double Negative.