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Auckland Arts Festival: Limbo - review

Mar 12, 2015 Theatre

Festival Club at the Paradiso Spiegeltent, Aotea Centre

It must have been awkward for the Arts Festival organisers when the American spiegeltent show Empire swept into town in January. Acrobats in their underwear, ripped bodies, a show to make you gasp and grin. If we all went in January, would we come back to see another show just like that in the festival’s own spiegeltent in March? It’s good to be better but it’s better to be first, and the festival was definitely second.

But is it better? Short answer: definitely yes. Slightly longer answer: yes, in the ways that matter most. Limbo has better acrobatic feats, more skill, more beauty and grace and sheer courageous daring. More gasps and grins, and for that it’s a good night out.

If you haven’t seen really big fire-eating, or sword swallowing – and neon fluorescent tube swallowing – you really should take the chance to do it now. If you haven’t seen a man wrapping himself with soft, lithe and incredibly muscular grace around a pole, hanging from it, diving headfirst to the ground and stopping himself just centimetres away… And there’s another who puts his two feet on the ground and his two hands also, and yet his body, between the limbs, is completely twisted over.

Most astonishing, most captivating, most daring of all, there’s a routine in which several of the company take their places on top of high bendy poles, and sway, soar and glide over the audience, sweeping in towards each other, flinging themselves out and away – it must feel like flying, it’s so beautiful, and yet there is the prospect of crashing at every moment. Heart-in-the-mouth wonder.

I loved those acts, and recommend them without qualification.

Not, by any means, that Limbo is perfect. The climactic act, a suspended hoop routine, is the weakest in the show, which creates a strangely flat ending. And it involves a disappearing act, which breaks the conventions of the show. For the rest, the amazing things you see really are the amazing things they do. But in this moment they revert to a magic trick, and a pretty obvious one at that. They, of all people, don’t need tricks.

More worryingly, the show seems unaware of its own racism. It’s uncomfortable watching the tap dance routine of the one African American in the cast: his demeanour and his clothes owe more than a little to the bad old days of black men performing with fixed, forced grins for the white folks.

Later, the one Asian cast member does his acrobatic routine in a simulated cage, in chains, and is repeatedly “forced” to perform by the ringmaster. The white cast members are allowed simply to be amazing; the non-whites get put through patronising scenarios of oppression.

Limbo is also betrayed by its ringmaster, the musical director and composer Sxip Shirey, who prances around in a white suit with a harmonica and a megaphone. It’s very odd. The acrobats are beautiful and brilliant, while he manages to be little more than oafish – without having the charm necessary to turn that into clowning or engaging ringmastering.

Instead of humour, variations in pace and dramatic structure, he gives us interludes of self-important blowsiness – and a musical score that misses as much as it hits. He doesn’t belong on the stage with this cast, and apparently lacks the humility to recognise it.

At the very end, after the unsatisfying hoop routine, the cast all sing a song called “Who Do You Love?”, and Shirey picks up his megaphone to tell us that when we all get to the Pearly Gates, that is the question St Peter is going to ask us. Who do you love. It’s a complete mystery what this means in relation to anything else in the show. What’s it doing there? Is it a hangover from something else Shirey has done?

Acrobatic cabaret burlesques – we’ve seen a bunch of them now, and we have the right to expect the bar will be set high. That the humour will be really sharp, the acts skilled and dangerous, the music wonderful, the performances bursting with unexpected, liberating creativity, the whole show unfolding to reveal dramatic shape and a thrilling climax.

The Limbo cast are so talented. I really do mean this: for their talents, they are so worth seeing. But I longed for them to be in something better.

Limbo: Aotea Centre to March 22.


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