Circus 1903 – Sydney Opera House

Going to the circus is, for many, a thrilling experience: nostalgia, loud noises, death-defying acts… while sitting in the front row and having popcorn lobbed in your face by the ringmaster did not exactly coincide with these expectations, it’s all part of the fun and games of Circus 1903.

It’s a return to the classic tone of early 20th century circus and it does not disappoint. The costumes are beautiful, vintage designs, and the set evokes an ‘old timey’ atmosphere without cluttering the large stage. The music, which varies from a fast jig to a majestic orchestral piece, helps build anticipation when the acrobats are working up to their next big trick.

Circus 1903. Photo by Jim Lee.

The cast are not only precociously skilled, but talented entertainers as well. Their big movements capture the attention of those even in the back of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. In short, they know how to work a crowd. In an edge-of-your seat acrobatics show of two Rossi brothers (Alejandro and Ricardo) ‘foot juggling’ each other, one airborne gymnast lost his footing and hit the ground. In this moment of silence, you could hear a pin drop amongst the 2000 strong crowd. However, in a compelling moment of ‘the show must go on’ bravado, he flips back to his feet and continues his tumbling.

It’s in these flaws that the show becomes even more impressive. When we are reminded of the very real risk and possibility of failure, these death defying stunts captivate us all the more.

The cast is rounded out with a carefully crafted puppet of a mother elephant and its child, reminiscent of the animals in the stage musical The Lion King.

That popcorn-throwing ringmaster (David Williamson) is the show’s narrator. His interactions with volunteer children plucked from the audience, complete with a magic show and pretend puppets, was a joy to behold. While there are jokes and silliness aplenty, he also offers captivating musings on the rare magic of circus, creating an atmosphere that’s simultaneously jocular and wistful.

This paradoxical mix of tones is reflective of the show as a whole. The performers strike a fine balance between death-defying, edge-of-your-seat acrobatics, and graceful, dance-like movement. Despite the performers’ overwhelming talent, one of the show’s charms is that they never take themselves too seriously. The show recreates the sideshow attractions of the golden days a circus to many a laugh; traditional features like the strong man and the snake charmer are parodied, making the final, legitimate contortionist (Senayet Assefa Amara) all the more impressive.

Circus 1903 is thrillingly entertaining show, with audiences both holding their breath, and laughing with delight. It resists the temptation to bombard us with information, but keeps the show reasonably short so we’re always wanting more.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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