NoFit State Circus brings acclaimed show Lexicon to The Roundhouse
PUBLISHED: 15:13 04 December 2019 | UPDATED: 15:13 04 December 2019
© Mark Robson 2019
Contemporary circus veterans bring their most accessible family friendly show yet to the Chalk Farm venue that is their 'spiritual home'
The seeds of NoFit State Circus were sown in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1980s.
They were five friends, street performers and activists - who would probably be rudely labelled 'crusties' by Boris Johnson.
"I was a juggling street performer," says artistic director Tom Rack, the self-confessed "last man standing" from the original founders. "The 80s were politically charged; Margaret Thatcher, the miner's strike, battle of the beanfield. In the early days, we were carefree, five young activists travelling to festivals, doing it for fun. We've tried to maintain that bohemian spirit and ethos."
They became inspired by an emerging style of circus that focused on humans not animals, and used elements of the surreal, alternative comedy and performance styles like physical theatre, mime and dance. Archaos, who juggled chainsaws, Ra Ra Zoo whose shows included Juggling With a Conscience, and Argentina's De La Guarda, who brought their dizzying performance style to The Roundhouse, updated a 250 year-old tradition and reimagined it for contemporary audiences.
The Cardiff-based outfit started making work which has regularly played at the Chalk Farm venue, including their latest Lexicon,
"The Roundhouse is our spiritual home in London," says Rack. "The building itself feels like a big top, there's always a great audience and and it has really championed the cause of contemporary circus."
Rack, who remains passionate about performing in a traditional tent, says a space can make all the difference to the experience.
"It doesn't feel like coming into a theatre where the audience sits there in the dark and says 'come on impress me'. In the round everyone is involved, implicated and wrapped around the performance, there's no 4th wall."
Three years in gestation, Lexicon marks "a big shift in direction" for the troupe. It was created in 2018 for the 250th anniversary of the birth of circus as we know it today, when Philip Astley assembled disparate acts in one show, performed in a ring.
Rack says Lexicon is a celebration of circus heritage and traditions in style and spirit. Just like Astley's audiences, they are seated in the round rather than in NoFit State's usual promenade performances.
"There are more traditional skills, acrobats, jugglers, floor work, but in a contemporary context. It's more family friendly and accessible than anything we have done before. It's something fresh to move our work on. You can't be at the cutting edge and keep doing the same thing. You have to bring a whole new set of toys to the toy box."
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Its theme, "the art of misbehaving" embraces the history of circus in the notion of pranksters: "mischievious characters who play tricks on each other and misbehave".
But it also cross fertilises with art forms including cinema and features footstomping live music.
"It starts in a schoolroom, a familiar setting where everyone has to behave, and we first have to learn the rules. Then circus is where we go and break all the rules, the show just unfolds from there."
Over 35 years, Rack has seen contemporary circus take off in different directions and "hugely diversify"
"There are so many different approaches and styles, there's no single idea of contemporary circus and that has to be a good thing."
There is also an infrastructure for emerging performers.
"When we started there wasn't much in the UK, no circus schools, we were self-taught, so it's great to see young people starting out in the industry with education and training."
Their performers hail from all over "a truly international cast of really young talent".
The Roundhouse aside, playing in a big top remains "hugely important".
"I think it comes across on stage, when a company has built the tent, worked together to put on the show. There's something special that you get from that, a sense of community and trust - knowing people so well. You don't get it in other art forms, we literally put our lives in each other's hands on a regular basis."
It's also important for him to challenge conventional performance set ups and even the notion of what is entertainment.
"It's taken a while. For the first 15 years people asked 'where are the red noses and clowns?' but public perception has begun to change. A lot of contemporary circus now happens in theatres where the expectation is for it to be more traditional with a narrative. It can be frustrating when people are looking for too much meaning, and it can be hard to maintain that original spirit. That's why we're so passionate about playing in a big top , keeping on keeping that spirit alive."