By BRUCE DENNILL
The Nutcracker’s Winter Circus / Directed by Andrew Botha / Sandton City Centre Court, Sandton, Johannesburg
A Big Top circus tent in the middle of one of the busiest shopping malls in the southern hemisphere is a surprise, and a pleasant one. In a temple of materialism, the custom-designed venue for this family-friendly slice of entertainment stands out a touch of magic that can’t be replicated by Black Friday deals or any other retail-related wizardry.
More interestingly – and excitingly, for those who appreciate the heritage behind various art forms – the show is quite clearly an homage, minus the troublesome animal acts (there’s no way to avoid concerns about cruelty) to the simple, compact travelling shows that were the basis for the modern circus, way back in medieval times. Those shows may have involved only a family group presenting a handful of skits with whatever props they had to hand before passing a hat around for contributions from the audience, and would likely have been staged in the marketplace of the town they were passing through, as that was the spot most likely to have people – a prospective audience – milling about
The Nutcracker’s Winter Circus espouses similar principles, though the production values are markedly higher. Ringmaster Pytor (Craig Morris, gleefully hamming it up, to the delight of the children in the crowd) and his troupe Rachel Abrahams, Casey Swales, Grace Stapelberg, Hardy Keeve, Letsedi Motladi, Lloyd van Straten and Bafikile Sedibe make the most of their small performance space using only an old laundry basket, a number of balls of different sizes, a puppet and one or two other odds and ends.
As the show’s title suggests, the line-up includes excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, choreographed by David Gouldie and danced to a soundtrack that has the original compositions updated by Nikki Saks. Between the pas de deux, there are moments of contemporary dance, some clowning and monkeying around by Morris, interacting with the various props and an appearance by some outsized, stylised versions of the traditional Pierrot and Pierette clowns (another nod to what has come before).
Beautiful, bright costumes, enthusiastic performers (Swales is arguably the pick of the bunch) and some classic physical gags ensure that the show holds the audience’s attention for the hour-long running time of the piece. And it may be more memorable for many as a first introduction to theatre and dance of any sort. If you’re looking for any group of people who might never have seen the inside of a theatre, a mall is a solid place to start. And with a maximum ticket price of R20, the production’s accessibility is more or less unparalleled in Johannesburg. A fine idea, with potential to develop both audiences and artists able to showcase their talent on a new platform.