After some years, what is now the Melbourne International Arts Festival has conditioned its patrons to expect some kind of big-budget, big-ticket fusion of circus skills and storytelling. In 2018 it’s Lexicon, a show intending to be a “celebration of the past, present and future of circus.”
A “lexicon” is a collection of vocabulary or area of knowledge. This Lexicon shows its fluency in design, and ability to translate this into some striking visuals. An opening where pupils at old-style wooden school desks were hoisted skywards created surprise and wonder. Much later in the second act, levels of metal crescents drawn upwards turned besuited men and women in bustle dresses into ornaments on a human mobile.
Enjoyment at other times could be disrupted by technical matters. Seated close to the band, I found a school mistress at the start hard to understand, something about the lexicon and looking for opportunities for bad behaviour? Across the show I often found lyrics drowned out by the tunes.
Then again, the music and lyrics rendered by our performers when offstage were often quite repetitive, causing their appeal to fade. This dissatisfaction was partially a consequence of Lexicon’s lack of coherence, but was exacerbated by scenes that were bafflingly pedestrian, or undercooked.
For example, a black sheer cloth was drawn around a man at his own student desk, whilst lit at close range from different angles. The unremarkable desk balancing to follow caused little audience reaction, and seemed an exercise in artsy-ness for its own sake with an unconvincing connection to the opening. This was not the only time in the show that I would have such thoughts about an act.
Scenes of high-energy (yet unmotivated) hijinks, some employing quirky mechanical creations, might play over well with the kids in the audience. Adults may find these repetitive, verging on filler, as they wait hoping for more impressive displays of skill. Regrettably, the work didn’t compare favourably against the standard Melbourne is now accustomed to, thanks to Circus Oz and other companies, and previous Melbourne Festivals.
There were some highlights. A unicycle rider showed daring and tenacity in not letting his position keep him from pressing tasks. A performer on a suspended slackline exhibited grace, flexibility, and surprising dynamism, and a fast-moving trapeze act brought excitement through a sense of danger.
Overall though, Lexicon feels as if it has forced its circus performers to reach beyond their disciplinary strengths to make a “festival show”. Tickets aren’t cheap, and circus patrons might find their own personal lexicon throwing up phrases like “awkwardly disappointing” or “somewhat flabby”. However, praise is due to the costuming and design team, who are deserving of their own applause.
Observatory Lawn – Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 5 October 2018 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 21 October 2018
Information and Bookings: www.festival.melbourne
Image: Performers in Lexicon – courtesy of NoFit State Circus
Review: Jason Whyte