Last weekend, Tom and I found ourselves trotting through the crooked back-streets of Smithfield, heading towards the night circus.
Smithfield is steeped in history, so is a highly charged setting for any performance. It’s mostly known for its centuries-old market these days, but it used to be a popular site for executions, including that of William Wallace in 1305. It was also largely untouched by the 1666 fire of London, so has retained a sense of its past more than most areas of London. Ghosts brush past you as you wander through it, and you find yourself listening out for their footsteps.
Tom and I had tickets for ‘How Like an Angel‘, a collaboration between the UK based vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini, and the contemporary Australian circus troop Circa. They have been performing at cathedrals around the UK culminating in this, their final run, at The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great. The church was founded in 1123 as an Augustinian priory, and though what remains is merely the chancel of a much larger monastic church, it still possesses the most significant Norman interior in London (and was used in Shakespeare in Love as the church where Shakespeare begs for forgiveness, incidentally).
It took us a while to work out how to actually get inside (it was dark, alright!), so we were a couple of minutes late, but this only gave the scene that greeted us greater impact. The atmosphere was charged; the audience a small crowd in the centre of the church. Abstract, electronic sound that could be felt as much as heard pulsed through the building, like the energy you perceive in the sky before a storm breaks; the heaviness of the air before the rain falls. White-clad figures were twisting and contorting through the air above us, ropes of silk being formed into ladders and swings, human limbs used as levers and supports. It was breathtaking.
There is something magical and illicit about the circus. It allows you to step into another, fantastical world, designed purely for pleasure and entertainment, that you suspect is neither entirely real nor entirely safe. Both suspicions heighten its power to enthral. Soon, the focus shifted to I Fagiolini, and their voices soared above us, higher even than the acrobats had taken us. The performance shifted between two stages at either end of the church, as well as weaving through the audience at times. Choral music from the 11th to the 20th centuries was both focus and background, enhancing the sense that the acrobats and their contortions strangely belonged in the church, despite being so disparate from its usual use.
The skill and strength of the circus performers was remarkable, and frequent gasps were elicited from their delighted audience. Most were lost in their own world, twisting, balancing and leaping through the air, but a sense of rapport was built between audience and performers through very subtle humour; a smirk when a clever trick surprised us, or a smile when a particularly difficult routine was completed.
This wasn’t exactly like Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 fantasy novel The Night Circus, but it felt pretty close. Magic was woven in the air that night.
Has anyone else seen Circa or I Fagiolini before?