'Ringside' at the London Roundhouse, performed by Francesca Hyde, directed by Ellie Dubois
|The publicity said: ‘This is circus up close and personal. Intimate, visceral and thought provoking, made for your eyes only.’ which, in retrospect, is a pretty obvious clue as to what to expect. But, possibly because of my Y chromosomes, I have a natural tendency not to read publicity, just as I have a natural tendency not to read instruction manuals, so I missed the point - and got a bigger surprise than I expected.
I’ve known Francesca Hyde (Fran) for some years and have seen her perform many times, mostly with her creative partner and fellow circus performer Lucie N'Duhirahe. I’ve seen her perform at the Roundhouse before and, often, on her boat on the waterways of East London, which is equipped with a stage and aerial rig. It was therefore for reasons of familiarity that I blanked on the publicity and just thought, I must go and see Fran’s show.
Both of us having been away from London for around eighteen months, we had agreed to meet for coffee near the Roundhouse the day before by way of catching up. When we met, Fran had just come offstage and I was immediately struck by the large, raw-looking rope burns on the insides of both her elbows. Wincing, I said 'Is that just par for the course, - a typical day’s work?’ She replied that it was, and then turned, lifting her t-shirt to show me her lower back which, at lumbar level had a large raw burn of around 6 inches in length, looking even worse. After coffee, she kindly obtained a comp ticket for the following days’ performance.
Next day I turned up at the Roundhouse and inquired about the comp. I was given my ticket, and directed to the foot of a stairway and told to speak to the security guard there. I did so, and was told to wait a while and someone would be down to collect me. As there was only five minutes until the performance, I was puzzled by the lack of other audience members and put this down to it being a weekend matinee.
After a short wait a young woman came to collect me and accompanied me upstairs. She struck me as being rather notably assertive, telling me that I would have to leave my bag with her and instructing me to switch off my mobile. She then informed me that we would go into the space and that it would be very dark and I should be careful. She accompanied me in and, sure enough, I initially couldn’t see a thing. I was aware of walking into a large dark space (the main stage area) and, gradually, of some large pieces of equipment looming in front of me. Ahead of me was a line of light across the passageway and I was directed to stand at this point and not move until collected. I did so, and remained in the dark for some moments, wondering what would happen.
A spotlight suddenly came on, illuminating a short flight of steps leading up to the stage and suddenly I began to get a bit nervous! I stood still, despite the obvious invitation of the lit steps, wondering whether I was meant to mount them. I decided to play safe and stick with the ‘wait’ instruction, in case I screwed something up.
After a while a figure moved through the darkness towards me - Fran, entirely on her own. I noticed her form-fitting leotard and velcroed, flesh-coloured fingerless gloves. ‘Hi Frank’ she said and took my hand, facing the steps with me, then led me onto the stage. We stood there a few moments and she asked me ‘So, Frank, what d’you think? - at this moment a second spot lit a trapeze bar hanging a couple of feet in front of me and a short distance above my head. Despite six years of friendship I found myself unaccountably shy of Fran and more than a little intimidated by the possibilities of the trapeze! Answering her, I said ‘Well, there’s the pretty obvious invitation of the spotlit bar, which I find more very compelling - but my commonsense is telling me otherwise, and I have a sneaking feeling that if I took hold of it I might find myself twenty feet above the arena! ‘Can you reach it?’ she asked. I tried, and found it to be just out of my standing reach, though I felt I could jump up and catch it. We both laughed and I wasn’t reassured. Then, Fran re-positioned me and stood under the bar herself.
What followed then was that Fran mounted the bar and began, supplely, to go through many aerial transitions, backlit by the spotlight, framed by the blackness of the theatre and at close range. For much of the time she was in sillhouette, haloed, every tiny hair of her head picked out by the spot. Sometimes I could see her expression, sometimes not. I could see the tiny puffs of French chalk from her hands as she repositioned them on the bar, I could hear the slipping of her gloves across it and the zipping sound made by her costume when it contacted the ropes or bar. I could sometimes see her smile. I could feel her effort, her body weight, muscle tone - it felt like my soul kept swapping places with her every few seconds - constantly switching between being and seeing. Finally, saying ‘this is the hardest bit’, she jumped to the floor facing me. ‘Thank you’ I said, not feeling it was nearly enough.
Afterwards, reflecting on the performance, the closeness, the sense of privelege, the amazing gift of such a change of perspective - I suddenly remembered the burns; and realised this is the performer’s price - that it’s not only the audience who pay for theatre - the artist pays too and their ticket price is high. And I went home feeling priveleged, humbled, and all too aware that my ticket was free.