By BRUCE DENNILL
Slava’s Snowshow / Created by Slava Polunin / Teatro, Fourways, Johannesburg
Slava’s Snowshow is a wordless, full-length, tragi-comic theatre production. As such, it’s not something that most mainstream audiences have the slightest clue how to approach. Its creator Slava Polunin is one of Russia’s most famous clowns, and the show is a celebration of his art and the physical control and emotional manipulation that good clowning delivers.
It connects well with those watching, regardless of their level of understanding of clowning, because of two factors – the removal of the act from just an intermittent linking routine between other segments of a circus or other show, allowing for a narrative; and the presence of a relatively large cast, rather than just an isolated performer and one or two sidekicks.
Polunin’s most famous creation, the clown Assissai, dressed all in yellow, remains the focus of the piece even now that the Russian entertainer is in retirement, with his foils provided by a succession of co-stars in wide-brimmed (emphasis on “wide – they extend three feet on either side of the performers’ heads) hats, long green coats and long, flappy shoes.
The props are simple but cleverly constructed, allowing Assissai and the others to make bedsteads into boats and drops into monstrous spiderwebs that ultimately cover the entire audience. There are moments of sweet innocence, of slapstick interaction and wide smiles. Then there are shadows, real and suggested, and nightmare creatures that stalk through them fleetingly, briefly removing the patina of good cheer created by the bubbles, balloons and bright lights the characters interact with most of the time.
The ending is a crescendo in every sense, loud and violent and surprising and shocking, though even then it’s mitigated by an encore that will leave you feeling like a child as you leave the theatre.
Slava’s Snowshow is an epic visual poem of melancholy and joy, often at the same time. What you take from it is up to you: it provides a platform on which your imagination can leap and crawl, ebb and flow. And as such, seeing it is a positive experience, whatever parts of it stay with you.