Shakespeare in the sky

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Ho Chi Minh City's motley but lovable circus performs Romeo and Juliet from the tightrope and swinging trapeze


Quoc Nghiep (in white) of the Ho Chi Minh City Circus Art Troupe plays Romeo. He said that it is not easy to handle the play's long and wordy speeches while balancing on the trapeze, turning somersaults, flipping in mid-air, or doing other acrobatics.

When the curtain fell, a group of little girls from the audience rushed onto the stage to say goodbye to the handsome Romeo they had fallen in love with, fearing they might not ever see him again "before he dies," according to one.     

The actors and actresses in the show that so many found so moving are actually acrobats, trapeze swingers, aerialists, and other circus artists.

But it just so happens that their blend of physical prowess and sincerely-expressed emotions was more than enough to bring Shakespeare's timeless classic Romeo and Juliet alive for audiences.

They did not merely mime the play or act it out through interpretive dance: the whole script was translated into Vietnamese and performed unabridged. It was a first for the Ho Chi Minh City Circus Art Troupe, which spent VND400 million (US$ 20,000) on the show, its most expensive production ever. 

The salvo of applause at the end of the show and the thrilled little girls seemed reward enough for the artists, many of whom have been circus performers since they were children and never dreamed of becoming actors in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Love in the air

Quoc Nghiep and Thu Hien, who have incarnated themselves as Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers for the first time in their careers, still get anxious before every show. It is not easy to handle the play's long and wordy speeches while balancing on the trapeze, turning somersaults, flipping in mid-air, or doing other acrobatics.

The dialogue is indeed a bit weak and the acting slightly awkward, but Shakespeare is hard even for seasoned actors. Most viewers found the drama acceptable, even if a few changes could have been made.

Nguyet Anh, 38, mother of two little girls, said the show was good, but just a bit too long.

"I'd prefer it if the show were shorter," she said. "It starts at nearly 8 p.m. and lasts for nearly two hours. This is past the kids' bedtime. Moreover, sometimes I couldn't hear what the actors were saying, and don't know if it was because of the theater's sound system or something else. It will be better if it is more succinct," said Anh. 


Ho Chi Minh City's motley but lovable circus performs Romeo and Juliet from the tightrope and swinging trapeze

But still, 74-year-old noted director Doan Ba's arrangement of Juliet swinging purely and freely on the trapeze and the couple's astonishing up-in-the-air kisses won the hearts of many.

The death scene, beautifully performed on ropes, was a stunning jolt into sobriety.

Meritorious artist Phi Vu, the show's director of circus acts, said that the performance was a milestone in the circus troupe's development.

"This is the first time we stand on our own feet, instead of waiting for the collaboration from the other kinds of arts... Do-it-yourself is the best way for us now," said Vu, a 48-year-old artist, who has spent 33 years as a circus performer and director.

Vu also said that the show's goal was to bring more of the fun of theater to youths who might normally only be entertained by an elephant standing on a ball or a bear riding a tricycle.

"They usually perceive us as a dull and stagnated art form. If this circus Shakespeare succeeds, we will keep on going along this track," said Vu. "Coming shows will feature not only circus acts, dance and magic, but also folk art and games... Our troupe's circus performers will have the chance to challenge themselves in new fields" said Vu.

Vu said the staging of Romeo and Juliet was a form of resistance against a 2007 decision by the HCMC Land Exploitation Department to move the circus out of downtown and into one of the city's outer districts.

After years of itinerancy, the circus troupe found a home a few years ago at September 23 Park, located in the center of the city near the backpacker quarter.

"We have just settled here," said Vu. "The art will be lost in oblivion if it is not recognized and developed in proper way. We just need a stable home to catch viewers. Is that an impossible request?"

"Romeo and Juliet" is on hiatus until November 25, as the leading actor and actress are performing in Italy.

Tickets, VND100,000 for adult and VND80,000 for children, are available at the Ho Chi Minh City Circus Art Troupe's office at September 23 Park.

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