Casting Off at Melbourne Fringe creates powerful, hilarious and unapologetic circus, says New Review critic Georgia Mill
The term casting off has multiple meanings. It can refer to the technique used to finish a row of stitches in knitting, or to setting sail and leaving the dock to venture into the unknown. The term casting also refers to an aerial circus skill (also called cradle or aerial cradle) in which a performer (catcher) hangs by their knees from a frame in the air, throws another performer (flyer) and then re-catches them by their hands or feet. Immediately after we take a seat to watch the performance my eyes are drawn upwards to the frame above the stage.
Casting Off, now on at the Melba Spiegeltent at Circus Oz in Collingwood, weaves together a commentary about women and ageing: their responsibilities, expectations and identities, and how society views them as they age. It does so with bucket-loads of humour and physical skill. Interestingly, this performance doesn’t slip between light and dark moments; rather, it cleverly moulds the two together.
There is something special about seeing circus performed in a spiegeltent. The seating is arranged on three sides of the stage with a thrust extending into the audience like a catwalk. It is set with chairs and tables draped by colourful crochet blankets. You’re so close to the performers and their bodies that you can see their muscles working, how their breathing changes after an acrobatic sequence, the intricacies of the show’s choreography.
Three women of different ages energetically enter the space. The crochet theme extends to their costumes (hand-made by the performers) which are colourfully knitted one-piece leotards: burgundies, greens, oranges and reds. They are the kind of gym wear I could see myself getting into – not tight fitting, breathable and able to make a statement. They remind me of the knitted bikinis I sometimes stumble across in op shops.
Slip (Deb Batton) is the eldest, and the biggest clown. The other performers continually remind her of where she should be standing and her lines. Pearl (Sharon Gruenert), is younger than Slip. She complains that she is not listened to. The unnamed younger character (played by Spenser Inwood) is the politically correct Gen Y of the group.
The first sequence of acrobatics – in which each performer flips and tumbles while delivering a line – acts as a kind of to-do list. We gain an insight into the characters’ lives and what they are required to take responsibility for: whether it’s shopping, getting a sexual health check, calling a handy person, preparing a meal or remembering to “do the bowel cancer test and make time for romance.”
The term “mental load” is a relatively new one for an old issue – that of taking on the mental work for planning, list-making, organising and being responsible for chores and the well-being of family that largely falls to women. The mental load of the tasks the performers read out seems far greater than the weight of the flips, handstands and catches. Perhaps it is. There is a freedom and autonomy in hurling your body through the air, a sensation not easily achievable through writing a shopping list or calling a plumber.
In one scene, while lying between the legs of a chair, under a table or balancing languidly on a chair that leans against the table, the performers deliver monologues. They’re lines of advice that you might receive from a relative, or read in a horoscope, the kinds of things that I imagine an older women might give to the performers at some stage in their lives – “Your body is strong and beautiful and it will let you do incredible things.”
At one point the youngest character climbs into the aerial frame and asks Slip how old she was when people started to take her seriously. She explains that she’s just turned 30 and she feels like people are starting to take her seriously. Slip suggests that maybe she is actually beginning to take herself seriously.
I can relate to this. I’ve just turned 30 and feel that I don’t have to apologise for myself. People are more open to my ideas and I care less about what they think. Women are expected to walk a fine line between being confident, but not too confident. During the show the performers heap a ridiculous amount compliments on themselves and we laugh, as if they are foolish to praise themselves.
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists.
The performers recite the rhyme There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, and emphasise the line “she’ll probably die” over and over again. We will all die. But before we do, we might suffer or lose our memory and seem utterly unlike ourselves. What happens when we lose the ability to remember, our multi-taking ability, our sexiness, our strength, our confidence, our desirability? We become old women – poor old women.
There was an old lady who swallowed a fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!
At one point Pearl puts a chair over her head, switches on a light which is taped beneath it and begins to cry and wail. The other performers encourage her to cry louder, to let it all out. They think she could be crying harder, apparently she can do much better than this. It points to the social narrative for women that demands that they be organised and competent, attractive and nurturing. We have no place for them when they become hysterical and lonely.
There is no audio track, but very few moments of silence. During the performance I felt hungry for the performers’ voices and stories and there’s much hysterical laughter, from the performers and the audience. Through scene transitions they sing, hum or scream. Sometimes it’s gentle and catchy, but at other times it’s abrupt and shocking.
Slip often generates the biggest laughs. She has a running joke throughout the show where she can’t seem to get onto the stage. Each time she falls or jumps off the stage it takes multiple goes for her to get back up. Towards the end of this performance she takes a run up and makes it. The audience claps and straight away she turns around and snaps, “Don’t patronise me!”
Sometimes circus leaves me craving a narrative, but in Casting off it was rich, clever and absurd, and there was something tough to chew on later.
The skills are non-stop: chair balancing, handstands on chairs, bodies balancing on chairs, chairs balancing on bodies and a scene where Pearl rides a tiny bicycle around the audience while balancing on her head. The finale of the aerial casting performed by Pearl and the younger character had all the traditional elements of circus: suspense, danger and skill. Many hours go into making circus look easy. Making something flow, being able to do trick after trick and not miss a beat. To do this while delivering a monologue is a sizeable ask.
I was struck by how powerful it is to see three women performing physically demanding circus on stage with no love interest, no man to save the day, or baby to birth. I’m a bit shocked by how refreshing it is, by how impressed I am by their bodies and how exciting it is to see women who aren’t in their 20s doing this. I wish I weren’t as impressed, I wish this were commonplace and women could take up space doing their own thing without it being a statement. But we are not there yet, and this is definitely a statement.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Casting Off, Created and Performed by Debra Batton, Sharon Gruenert and Spenser Inwood. Dramaturgy by Alexandra Harrison. The Melba – Spiegeltent, Melbourne Fringe. Until September 23. Bookings
Contains mild coarse language, adult themes, abortion.
The Melba Spiegeltent is wheelchair accessible.