The Chinese State Circus Mulan ****

The Chinese State Circus Mulan

The Chinese State Circus Mulan. Image courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

Ocean Terminal Big Top, 6 – 22 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

After just ten minutes in the Chinese State Circus’s big top, my palms are already sore from clapping. Applause soundtracks their entire event in a near-continuous torrent, accompanied by vocalisations of awe both voluntary and involuntary.

The legend of Mulan – who disguised herself in her father’s armour and became the Emperor’s only female general, unbeknownst to all – provides a loose framework for this year’s extravaganza. Each act is contextualised as part of the celebration of Mulan’s birth, part of the Emperor’s army or part of the enemy’s.

Mulan gains her martial prowess by studying with the Shaolin Warriors, whose presence is clearly a coup for the circus: every three or four acts they’re back, breaking metal bars on their heads or lifting each other on spearpoints. Their martial arts displays are almost too fast to register as impressive; we can marvel at their speed, but the movement is a blur, its precision and intricacy impossible to appreciate without a slow-motion replay. Everyone applauds regardless: did I mention these men can break metal bars with their foreheads…?

The dialogue is clunkily dubbed through the PA, but that doesn’t matter: it’s brief and infrequent, and its only real purpose is to distract the audience while the next act sets up. The story intrudes precisely as much as is required to give the acts a sense of purpose, and thence stays out of the way of what we’re all there to see: acts so skilled and polished you’ll double-take, realising only after a moment’s reflection just how breathtaking their apparently effortless feats actually are.

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