Ever dreamt of running away with the circus?
Anonymous Ensemble’s Wanderlust brings us the story of Tall Hilda, a girl with legs that reach to the sky; a girl who runs away and lives the circus dream, now here to tell us her tall, tall tale.
The show is presented in a regular theatre setting—a black box studio with tiered seats—but that’s where anything resembling a regular theatre experience begins and ends…
We enter the theatre space and take our seats, eyes turned expectantly to the stage area. There’s no set or props other than a dangling rope, a cabaret table, and a chair—at which sits slumped and slumbering a lady with voluminous skirts, circles of white silk cascading across the floor. Tall Hilda (for it is she) awakes with a start, rises to her full height—around 12 foot, I’d guess—and invites us to join her onstage. Or perhaps ‘invites’ is not quite the right word—we are ordered, in a deep and booming voice with a comedy Bavarian accent, to get up off our arses and get down there. ‘This is not a spectator sport, you are here to play.’
And who can resist a 12-foot-tall woman in a corset and crinoline? Not I. Astonishingly, every single audience member (and it’s a full house, so there’s a lot of us) is beguiled into the game—although some make a retreat for the safety of their seats after what they deem to be a decent interval of participation.
What follows is 90 minutes of carefully choreographed lunacy, in which we all join Hilda and her sidekicks Ludwig and Gretel in enacting the story of Tall Hilda: her extraordinary adolescence, in which her legs just grew and grew; her meeting with the Svengali who would entice her into the circus life; her failed love affair with a Gypsy violinist; and her journey over the sea to find her true homeland, her Jerusalem.
The telling of that tale takes in puppetry and object animation, verbal storytelling, shadow play, on-screen trapeze (from both human and puppet performers), and a variety of physical games and improvisations. The cascading white silk skirts become a parachute silk, which transforms first into a circus tent, then later into a turbulent sea. Water features strongly in this story: before we reach the open seas, Hilda’s journey takes us along the path of the River Danube, which turns out to be populated by Venetian mask-wearing go-go dancing fish (yes, that’s us). The tale of the unlucky lovers is enacted with ‘volunteers’ picked from our ranks: ‘You, would you like to be the violinist? Yes? Good! Ah, and you can be the pigeon!’
Behind all the frenetic and seemingly spontaneous activity is a very cleverly constructed ‘performance script’, with the audience expertly managed to suit the show’s needs. Although we are manipulated (like the puppets), we always feel that we are treated well—even fed vodka at one point to help us get through our tasks. Many a show predicated on audience participation falls at the first hurdle, but this troupe handle a crowd with the ease of an old circus family. And although Hilda is the obvious main point of focus—how could she not be, towering above us in her white silk, then red velvet, then silver lame, then back to white silk all-encompassing tent-dress—the other two cast members provide the all-important support as actor-musicians, and stage-managers, manipulating the space (and the bodies and objects in it) with ease.
It’s a show that uses circus skills (stilts, aerial, clowning), yet more to the point it’s a show—one of many, but this is a particularly interesting example—that takes circus as its metaphor in its investigation of ‘the freak’, the ‘other’, the ‘outsider’. That ‘other’ could be the physically different (like our Hilda), or someone from another culture, race or religion. And indeed the story of the journey through Eastern Europe to find a homeland in Jerusalem could, should we wish to see it as allegory, be taken to be the story of the Eastern European Jewish émigrés post-Holocaust.
It is ultimately a story that, despite all the fun and games, has a heart that beats with the concerns that inform all storytelling and theatre—how best to make our journey through this life, how to negotiate the bonds of love, how to find our true selves, and how to find our way ‘home’, wherever that might end up being.