Robert Reid finds the circus of NoFit State’s Lexicon impressive but lacking in focus
There’s something restrained about NoFit State’s Lexicon in comparison to Circa, say, or Cirque du Soleil. Each circus has its own unique personality, of course, and each work its own character. I want to describe Lexicon’s as…polite.
NoFit State do much the same things as other circuses, the same feats of strength balance and skill, but I found a reservation in their flashiness. They don’t seem to cheer or hoot as much. I don’t feel cajoled into doing the same, although we applaud and cheer anyway.
Circus can be a strangely rigid form. For all its appearance of everyone having a crazy great time together, on stage and in the stalls, for its seeming potential to collapse into chaos and anarchy, it’s commonly a procedural affair of displays of skill or strength or balance or daring, arranged in sequence. Only so much variation is possible, and it’s these variations that draw my attention and hold the most potential for revelation. Added details or new twists on old favourites give a circus its character.
In most instances, the aesthetics change but the core of the experience remains, part of what makes circus an enduringly popular form. It’s a fundamentally a conservative experience masquerading as chaos. The best circuses find ways to subvert the form, taking the display of physical prowess into unexpected spaces or challenging the conventions and expectations of the form and the body. But this, in my experience, is a rare circus indeed. Or maybe I ask too much of family entertainment.
The design for Lexicon has a ‘30s feeling: vests, braces, big hats and voluminous dresses. Argyle socks and flat caps. There are echoes of English boarding schools and factory towns. A voiceover at the beginning, after acknowledging the elders of the First Nations and exhorting us to turn off our mobile phones, notes that the full title is Lexicon: The Art of Misbehaving.
The opening scenes suggest school children playing up in class. A school ma’am with a nasty looking disciplinary cane floats over the stage barking a lesson for the children. Flying teachers in ‘30s clothes is hard not to associate with Harry Potter. The performers below her gather around old wood and steel school desks, striking a note that reminds me equal parts of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Singing Detective, and then clamber over them as they are hoisted into the air on hanging platforms.
It’s a striking image, but they’re lowered back to the stage without much fanfare, and the next act follows on. I feel that other circuses might feel the need to do more acrobatic leaping from desk to desk, more swinging of the whole mechanism. Instead, NoFit State are content to present the image alone without embellishment.
Sometimes there’s chaos. The cast races between solos as clowns, giggling like Bluebottle from the Goons, and it looks like there are some near misses on stage with a falling juggling baton (though you can never tell, of course, how staged such chaos is.) Each act is impressive in that “well, I certainly couldn’t do that” kind of way, but the evening feels lacking in focus. It gradually begins to feel like more of an amalgam of ideas than a progressing narrative or thematic world. It is almost a checklist of working class English charm. Is this the lexicon of the title? A list of circus skills and English clichés?
There isn’t a lot of misbehaving, really.
The band play a solid circus sound, European modes and carnival rhythms, waltzes and czardas, but the mix is muddy and I struggle to follow the lyrics. The lack of focus on stage begins to get to me. The bicycle act consists mainly of the cast riding different kinds of odd bike around in circles for long enough for me to start composing the opening lines to this review in my head. Again they create an image that they are happy to leave as is, without the need for ornament or tawdry display.
I finally find myself wondering if these moments are more striking when presented with clarity. I wonder if here each moment, each idea, slides lazily into the next, making the experience feel more bland than it might be. Or possibly just tired from the very long trip.
NoFit State’s Lexicon is perfectly serviceable circus. I know that’s damning with faint praise but there is nothing here to condemn nor rave about. Everyone is very good and if this is the only circus you see all year, you’ll definitely have seen a circus.
Lexicon, by NoFit State Circus. At the Royal Botanical Gardens as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 21. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Partly surtitled or includes dialogue, some background music and/or sounds