Lord, grant me the showmanship of a circus juggler. I had forgotten just how much performance went into their bit in the show, but a recent trip to the circus reminded me of just how much they amplify what is essentially a walk-on part in a production that is based around the threat of death. I stopped going to the circus years ago for two reasons – firstly, I was never sure what the plural of circus was. Second, the absolute horrors of animal cruelty. The last one we saw had five emaciated tigers in a cage, slowly climbing up on chairs, and staring bleakley around while some auld lad flapped a flaccid whip. It was excruciating to watch. I found myself thinking, go on, remember who you are, leap off that shaker style kitchen chair and rip that guy’s throat out. But they didn’t – human and tiger alike just looked old, tired and waiting for death. Perhaps I should tell you there is a metaphor here, that seeing an apex predator caged and broken, docile to the point of almost being dead spoke to my ongoing crisis of masculinity. But it is just depressing seeing anything in a cage, especially a big cat, rather than in their natural habitat – being hunted by poachers or American CEOs with rocket launchers.
Obviously, the world has changed since I last entered the big top – animal cruelty has become passé, as we evolve and realise that forcing an elephant – an animal that is incapable of forgetting – to trek around Ireland’s most forgettable towns is just not on. So the circus came to town, and reassured that I wouldn’t have to sit there seeing a dishevelled lion feigning interest in our screams, I went along.
First there is the ground work – you tell the kids that there is no way you are buying them any of the glowing tat that gets brandished in your face as soon as you walk in. No way, no how – that stuff is garbage and it breaks before the interval, so we are definitely not getting any. We made it to our seats without succumbing, but then one of the sellers appears and stood in front of us, waving a selection of neon ephemera at our kids whilst grinning like Pennywise from IT. We were doing so well – refusing to make eye contact with them, telling the kids they couldn’t have anything as we forgot our wallets – until the seller decided to up their game, went off and came back with three Minecraft light-up swords. Before we knew what was happening we were thirty euro down and getting hit in the side of the head with a geometric weapon made from the finest Chinese plastics. You didn’t see this kind of crap in The Greatest Showman, did you?
The show begins and you soon discover that the person who sold you the tat is now spinning twenty metres above the ground in a unitard via a rope around their neck, and you regret cursing them for their hard sell on the Minecraft gear because it appears that they now might actually die. In fact, many of the best parts of the show were the ones with the highest chance of someone getting maimed. All human existence is something of highwire act, where we try to live well and not explicitly invite our own demise, but it still awe inspiring to see an actual highwire in action; in the age of YouTube giving us every kind of prank and pratfall you could ever wish for, seeing a trapeze show or a wheel of death in real life has the power to take you back to your own sense of childlike wonder; the kids and us, all transfixed, hands to mouths in horror as we brace for someone to fall and die. Nobody dies, and we are duly awed (and quietly disappointed).
And then there is the juggler, who takes showmanship to new levels, roaring into the ring on a huge motorbike, complete with assistant, who seems to be there purely to point at him while he flings clubs and balls about the place. There were no chainsaws, no knives, no machetes being juggled – this was just him, in extremely tight white pants, in a power stance, managing to not drop things. I only have two things to juggle – work and life – and still struggle to not screw up on a daily basis. And yet here’s this guy, splay legged, roaring his own importance while he slings about twenty tennis balls into the air. If I could at least approach my life with the same level of confidence and performance, and perhaps less like the bumbling, brutish Zampanò from La Strada, I at least would make this entire performance a little more enjoyable for my little troupe with their light up swords and candy floss in their hair. The circus was brilliant – everyone loved it, and we promised the kids that there would be many more circuses (circii?) to come.