Circus of Men
I’m not going to beat around the proverbial bush: the latest offering from Black Fire, those masters of twistedly erotic stagecraft, is a disappointment. All the more so because it’s easy for the hopes to soar. Have a Google to yourself and you’ll find Circus of Men billed as ‘London’s newest, most erotic, sexual and dynamic all male show’. Never mind that two of them mean basically the same thing, and one of them makes no value judgement whatsoever, there are four superlatives in there. Four. You don’t expect anything that’s given four superlatives to let you down. And even for those who need a less tenuous basis for their great expectations, Circus of Men was something to look forward to. Fuel Girls, Black Fire’s self-styled Rock’n’Roll dance troupe, give a genuinely stunning, uncomplicatedly sexy show. Why should I have expected Circus of Men to be anything but two hours of sweet titillation?
The decidedly non-rhetorical answer ought perhaps to have come to me sooner. But by the interval it was becoming pretty clear that Circus of Men was failing precisely, in part, because it was aping Black Fire’s various other hits so well. The show’s producer, Hannah Welsby, insists that she’s presenting women with what they really like but from where I was sitting, sex was served up quick, neat, and perfectly primed for the (straight) male gaze. Less than five minutes in, one lucky spectator found a crotch in her face and an office-girl reverie was on the verge of becoming reality. The process of seduction had been portrayed through a series of blackouts and spotlit freeze-frames, key players reduced to lifeless objects, existing only under our voyeuristic gaze. Attention was now as much on a hypersexualised female performer as on the boy travelling over and around her body with acrobatic panache. She was supposed to be in control of this fantasy but divested, unlike the boy sprawled over her desk, of most of her clothes, she was presented for our predilection in a state of greater vulnerability.
And as the show pressed on we only moved further from the promised land of fulfilled female desire. Falsifying claims that this would be an all-male affair, The Du Sol Sisters took to the stage for an (admittedly very good) aerial hoop act. Wearing nothing but matching sets of bra and panties, they played against each other’s bodies suggestively as Erotic Award winning hostess, Ophelia Bitz, reminded us just how much genetic material they shared. Discomfiting, to say the least. Yet with hindsight, this was the perfect warm up act for the nominal climax of the evening: the eagerly anticipated trip into the deepest recesses of female fantasy.
It involved flaming nipple pasties. Fire was dancing from the end of a woman’s breasts. It was visually arresting, as I’m sure goes without saying (because isn’t there a little pyromaniac within all of us ready to lap that sort of thing up?), but I wasn’t exactly sat there mentally recasting that flame-busted figure in my own likeness. What the stage was offering up was not a subject position to inhabit but an object to possess. Was this a move to meet the demands of a Sapphic sensibility? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I wouldn’t expect Circus of Men to be quite so gyno-centric as that.
Because it’s not just the female performers (and their insistent presence) that make you question just how central women’s desire is to this whole project. The strongman, Sir Leopold Aleksander, played by Daniel Crute, is not just a relic of the past; he is a living, breathing artefact of the patriarchy. Now, Crute is a brilliant performer and no two ways about it. He can placate drunken hecklers with razor-sharp banter whilst decimating a watermelon with his head. It’s impressive. But surely the Herculean, moustachioed sex object, locating valour, honour, and chivalry in feats of strength, is a character from male fantasy. Sir Leopold Aleksander is not so much what women want as what men think that women want. Or rather, he’s a parody of what men think that women want. He waxes lyrical about the power of facial hair. He’s a joke that we’re all in on.
Which brings me onto the second of this production’s Achilles heels. Put simply, Circus of Men regularly undermines its own erotic appeal. The opening sequence, a shirtless dance routine soundtracked by Justin Timberlake’s Suit and Tie, plays out in front of an ‘office’ cobbled together from Argos’ factory seconds. The shining black costume of the fire-breasted dominatrix is coloured by Bitz’s lengthy diatribe against the awkward sweatiness of PVC. The beguiling mystique of the forlorn looking silk worker is juxtaposed by the brash sex appeal of Sir Leopold. With humour and bathos, the show reduces to ugliness and absurdity the very scenes with which it promises to arouse us. It’s not that there’s no room for wit or irony in cabaret. The brands of sex appeal indigenous to that genre find their natural companion in humour. But the eroticism of Circus of Men is not that of traditional cabaret. It takes itself far more seriously and whenever one of its insouciant displays is followed by tongue in cheek music hall repartee, the spell is broken and the magic reveals itself as a con.
It’s riveting stuff, for sure – if you’re a sucker for satire. But I’m quite sure that politically sensitive, post-modernist satire is not what Circus of Men sets out to be. And when prospective viewers are drawn to a show because their interest is piqued by its promises, I think it only fair to judge that show on its own terms. Circus of Men must be judged as a genuine attempt to turn intelligent, sexually liberated women on and so it must, for all the talent of its cast members, be found wanting.