‘A rollicking night of fun that keeps the audience effortlessly engaged’: New Review critic Sumudu Samarawickrama on Circus Oz: Rock Bang
Circus Oz: Rock Bang is billed as a circus rock opera. I had no clear idea of what that meant until the opening number, when everything became clear. I was going to be entertained! I didn’t know Otto and Astrid Rot (of Die Roten Punkte), so I was surprised by how familiar the audience were with the act. But it was great to be in a theatre with an audience who were energetic, playful and ready for fun.
The stage has an industrial vibe in black and red, and the costume of plaids and Doc Martin boots implies an eighties punk scene (which ties into the word play of Otto and Astrid’s band name, The Red Dots in English). Rock Bang is a gymnastic musical that weaves Otto and Astrid’s comic rock songs into a narrative enhanced by the spectacle of Circus Oz acrobats, who make up the chorus.
Seeing Circus Oz: Rock Bang on the 40th anniversary of the Circus Oz felt like a special event, and the group’s ethos of celebrating a collective of multi-skilled women and men gels perfectly with the nature of the rock opera. The ensemble – made up of April Dawson, Alyssa Moore, Kyle Raftery, Matt Wilson, Robbie Curtis and Rockie Stone – brings a thrilling energy to the Otto and Astrid’s musical.
The Merlyn Theatre at the Malthouse is the perfect space to showcase the muscular acrobatics: the power of the performers is palpable because we are so close. Rock Bang starts with bombast and the sound is huge. Otto and Astrid occupy raised islands, playing the guitar and drums respectively. Behind them are the band – musicians Casey Bennetto, Dean Matters, Shannon Bourne and Tamara Murphy – who are always on stage. The ensemble dance and perform acrobatic feats all around them.
Rock Bang is the origin story of Otto and Astrid Rot, a brother and sister orphaned as children by a train accident, move to Berlin as runaways and are inspired by David Bowie to become the “best band” in the world. Otto and Astrid are easy with the audience, addressing us directly, much like a rock concert. In the many moments of audience interaction, it becomes clear that Rock Bang is a continuation of past Die Roten Punkte performances; the audience and the performers share inside jokes and history. The distinctive personalities of the siblings shape the show, with Astrid’s bossier nature driving the narrative, while Otto’s dreamy, immaturity brings pathos and surrealism.
Otto begins the story as a typical Disney musical redux with himself cast as the princess, but Astrid disrupts him and declares that the truth of the story is punk. The opening song The 4.15 To Spandau Will Not Run Today deals with Astrid’s twelfth birthday, when she caught her parents having sex and saw them killed by a train.
I thought this was setting up a very interesting path for the musical, one where it would play with the subjectivity of memory and the deceptiveness of storytelling, but the show isn’t really concerned with those things. It wants to be a fun and strange two hour ride and, yes, it does that very well.
Rock Bang is an entertainment that delights in its absurdity. It’s deftly supported by the Circus Oz ensemble, who perform the physical comedy and add muscularity to the song numbers. And it is here that Rob Tannion’s direction and Casey Bennetto’s dramaturgy really shine – the stage and the acrobatic talents of the performers create a fantastic playground for Die Roten Punkte’s great songs.
One caveat is that the circus aspects are often used peripherally, which for me is a shame. The attention of the audience is held completely whenever the acrobatics are spotlighted, whether it be juggling or flying out at the audience on silks. The aerial gymnastics gives the action on stage a frisson which elevates the whole experience – having an circus performer swing out upside down on a rope across the audience brings a viscerality to the performance. I don’t think I’ve ever been as close to something like that and I applaud the stage design for making the space above our heads feel so full of potential.
Pulling of focus is used strategically, to change scenes or prepare a performer for another stunt. Mostly, however, the momentum stops for the circus elements, and that lack of integration seems like a missed opportunity. One seamless moment was during a number when the siblings are lost in a forest (where the audience doubles as the forest) and Otto spies a golden angel dancing on a hoop. The synergy between the sound, lighting and design was perfect and provided the show with one of its few transcendent moments.
I could feel the tension of bringing the two components of the show more tightly together. The songs already exist outside this particular context and that gives them a weight that sometimes overwhelms the staging. There is also a literalness to the way the songs are interpreted that can reduce their impact. When Otto is suspended above the stage in a rocket costume, singing about how, without Astrid (who’s in rehab), he dreams he is a rocket ship flying around the solar system, it is momentarily spectacular: but then both the song and the staging’s echo of it drains the performance of energy.
The takeaway is that Rock Bang is a rollicking night of fun that plays with its form enough to keep the audience effortlessly engaged. It’s performed with energy and joy by its talented cast and keeps its mischievous tone throughout. My desire for more circus in the circus rock opera is simply a testament to the thrilling abilities of Circus Oz. Here’s to another 40 years!
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.
Circus Oz Rock Bang written by Otto and Astrid Rot, directed by Rob Tannion. Dramaturgy and musical direction by Casey Bennetto. Set Adaptation by Anna Tregloan, costume Design by Laurel Frank, lighting design by Richard Vabre, shadow puppetry design by Lynne Kent. Musicians: Casey Bennetto, Dean Matters, Shannon Bourne and Tamara Murphy. Ensemble of acrobats: April Dawson, Alyssa Moore, Kyle Raftery, Matt Wilson, Robbie Curtis and Rockie Stone. Circus Oz at Malthouse Theatre. Until November 25. Bookings
Contains nudity, smoke & haze and adult content.
Audio description and Auslan performance: 3pm Saturday November 24. (To book reserved seats in front of the interpreter, enter the promo code AUSLAN).