Review: Swedish Performing Arts Biennale 2015, Malmö

Circus Walks a Political Tightrope

Mark Brown reports from the Swedish Performing Arts Biennale in Malmö

On face value, Sweden’s charming, decidedly relaxed third city, Malmö (population less than a third of a million), seems an unlikely place for a raucous, politically charged New Circus performance. Yet the city, which is currently hosting the Swedish Performing Arts Biennale (which moves from city to city every two years), is better equipped to welcome Swedish New Circus specialists Cirkus Cirkör (who celebrate their 20th anniversary this year) than most cities in the world.

Malmö is home to Hipp (short for Hippodrome), a remarkable, recently refurbished, purpose-built, 360 degree circus theatre. It’s impossible to imagine a better venue in which to present Borders, a co-production between Cirkör and Malmö City Theatre.

Edinburgh Fringe-goers of a certain age will remember the outrageous outdoor extravaganzas of the late, and lamented, French New Circus troupe Archaos. Imagine, if you will, a combination of that company’s anarchic punk circus (complete with explosive pyrotechnics and breathtaking acrobatics) and Last Dream (On Earth), Kai Fischer’s recent show for the National Theatre of Scotland, and you have something approximating Borders.

Photo: Frans Hällqvist
Photo: Frans Hällqvist

A coming together of Fischer’s poignant contemplation of the, often fatal, journeys of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean with high octane New Circus performance is improbable. However, this is Sweden. They have their fair share of fascists and racist headbangers, for sure, but, in general, Swedes seem to have an admirable awareness and compassion regarding the plight of migrants who risk their lives in tiny boats sailing from Libya or Morocco.

Cirkör offer their audience the full repertoire of New Circus skills. From the madcap ringmaster to the breathtaking high wire acts and pyromania, everything they do is reminiscent of the spectacular shows of Archaos.

There’s something else, however. The militarised clowns, who demand our “papers” as we enter the auditorium, are distinctly authoritarian. As they march around the theatre, the precarious journey of a superb trapeze artist combines movingly with an African migrant talking of his own death-defying journey.

There are impressive acrobatic displays on metal structures which create powerful metaphors both for the gates that exclude migrants and the fences that so often imprison them. This is not a show, then, for defenders of the Dungavel Detention Centre, Scotland’s own contribution to the incarceration of those who dare to seek a safer and better life on European shores.

Assisted by excellent projected images, Cirkör’s multi-ethnic company gives unique expression to the experiences of people who were recently referred to by the loathsome Katie Hopkins as “cockroaches” (a term of which Joseph Goebbels would have been proud). However, the global diversity of their fabulous live music and the sheer, joyous exuberance of their performance also celebrate the cultures of Europe’s migrant communities.

There are, inevitably, moments in the show when there is a somewhat clunky gear change, as the performance moves between circus and politics. Nonetheless, Cirkör deserve the abundant praise they have been receiving for putting their highly-skilled brand of New Circus at the service of urgent political activism.

If Borders does well by the campaign for migrants’ rights, a contemporary Finnish/Swedish co-production (by no fewer than seven theatre companies) of the play Sylvi, by Finland’s 19th-century bard Minna Canth, does much less for the reputation of Nordic theatre. Canth’s play tells the story of young Sylvi, trapped in a marriage to her much older guardian, as she falls in love with an old school friend of hers.

There are evident shades of Ibsen and Strindberg in the narrative. However, director Mikko Roiha seems to be trying, and failing, to refract the drama through the 20th-century absurdism of Ionesco.

In fact, the piece quickly descends into an over-simplistic vulgarity that is so often the calling card of contemporary postmodern performance. Characters become two-dimensional caricatures (at best). Sylvi’s actions, in terms of attempted suicide and eventual murder, are woefully predictable, while the emotional basis for them is reduced almost to nothing.

Watching such a melodramatic-yet-antiseptic rendition of a Nordic classic, I found myself yearning for the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh’s recent production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

As I partake in the rich artistic smörgåsbord that is the Swedish Bienniale, I am pleased to find that I am reminded of the world-class work being created on Scotland’s stages.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 31, 2015

© Mark Brown

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