In Venice in the 18th century, a pamphlet war broke out, gloves off, no quarter. It was about the nature and purpose of theatre: on the blue side, Carlo Gozzi, fantasist tale-spinner, champion for the ancient commedia dell'artetroupes in the city; on the red side, Carlo Goldoni, heavyweight for the new realists, the kitchen-sink dramatists of the Age of Reason. Goldoni was a modern who derided the artifice--the mummery--of Harlequin and Pantaloon stagecraft; he declared it creaking, stale and boring. Gozzi, challenging him to a contest, vowed that, with yet another of these tired old vehicles, he could pull in far bigger crowds than Goldoni. He did so with The Love For Three Oranges--a fairy tale of a more than usually preposterous kind--which later inspired Prokofiev's opera. Goldoni retreated from Venice, though not, of course, from history or success.
Gozzi may not be a name on every theatre lover's lips, but his idea that true theatre's roots lie in popular bawdy and sentiment, as well as in techniques such as masking, slapstick, pratfalls and so on, is again making a strong showing. The work of many of the best "physical theatre" companies--Shared Experience, Complicite, Joint Stock, Cheek by Jowl and Kneehigh--flaunts the power of make-believe, by which fancy's images grow to great substance and constancy. Its self-declared pretences are gaining ground over verisimilitude and the drama of imitation of real life. For Angela Carter, theatre was the place where nothing was real--and yet where everything was more real, somehow, in direct consequence. Kneehigh, a long-established company of strolling players, has found the exact frequency to make Carter's fiction leap into life in the theatre.
Carter's writings have been called magical realist, but the term is a misnomer in her case, because she is a sceptic, a satirist and a supremely 18th-century spirit in her rational comedy. Yet magical realism also borrowed from Latin America marvellous fictions in which a Catholic cosmos of supernatural prodigies largely provides the fantasy. In Carter's case, the fantasy is supplied by magic far closer to hand--the illusion conjured by performance--with its native roots in street balladry, mumming, freak shows and circus acts. And her imagination returns to traditional arts of illusion and legerdemain: juggling and rope-dancing, the high wire and the flying trapeze, to the ambiguities of clowning and monster shows, of cross-gender play-acting and whiteface and panstick, costume and disguise.
All these elements are brilliantly captured in Kneehigh's production of Nights at the Circus, adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice (who also directs). Fevvers, the winged aerialist who dominates Carter's novel with her colossal appetite and titanic proportions and wings that unfurl and spread when she is aroused, like orgasmic vibrations writ on the body, becomes a far sweeter, less formidable creature in Natalia Tena's engaging performance. Even so, her winged silhouette high on the trapeze packs all the high-octane, heart-stopping glamour that Carter's prose, with its bejewelled mingling of high and low turns of phrase, captures on the page. Fevvers--the Cockney Venus whose name puns on metaphors of flight and of champagne--embodies Carter's style: at once gorgeous and coarse. Carter derived this style from many sources, but John Webster's The White Devil, with its images of diamonds and dung-heaps, echoes the most in Nights at the Circus. (At one point one of the circus clowns asks: "Do they laugh in heaven?", a variation on the question put by a child in Webster's play: "What do the dead do ... do they eat?")
The commedia dell'arte and the Italian players who toured Europe passed down the words for the modes and skills a company such as Kneehigh draws on: they were pantomime artists, and this production …