Many immersive shows these days are pushing the bounds of technology. Both the falling cost of what in the past would be ‘special effects’ equipment and the availability of new technologies in the augmented reality / mixed reality space, has widened access to devices which, when they work well, can add magic and awe to an experience. It’s clear that this is what Circus in a Bottle by Trajectory Theatre is aiming for, with its use of Magic Leap headsets to add characters into the world. But the vital coming-together of tech with plot, action and seamless boundaries just isn’t there yet, at least with this show, which leaves me underwhelmed.
Despite a valiant effort to frame the computer wizardry with a family tale of woe set against the backdrop of circus history, there’s only a thin story present in this piece. We are sitting around a desk with an intriguing blueprint on it and fitted with our headsets. We’re asked to let them know if we can see a (generated) postcard lying on the table. There’s already a nervousness in the voice of the host, and an assurance that we can use an iPad alternative if we need to, which is ‘just as good’ (which rather makes me wonder what the point of the complex eyewear is). For me, the mixed-reality technology functions as expected. It still thrills me, despite not being the first time I’ve experienced it, to see three-dimensional holograms conjured from nothing.
Within a narrow (and occasionally awkward) field of vision, extra animations appear on the desk. These are cute enough, but as a device for storytelling, it’s hard to see what they add. I imagine the same show delivered with beautifully drawn cartoons depicting the scenes we’re shown or (in a different time) shadow puppetry playing the same role. In these fantasies, the narration on top would need to pull its weight even further. I just can’t see the current script delivering.
If a show comes down to tech trickery and that tech is flimsy at best (two of the six people in my group have to fall back on the iPad option), it’s worth considering how vital the gimmick is to the show. Don’t get me wrong: I salute the ambition of the company to try to make use of ingenious new opportunities for storytelling and can see how, functioning flawlessly, this might add something extra to an already gleaming show. We might expect to look to much larger, better-funded companies to be testing and developing these new ways of creating theatre experiences, so it’s impressive to see a small company investing in the R&D for this. The problem is that the efforts seem to have all gone into working on the tech, and around its flaws, rather than perfecting the narrative, theatrical, dramatic elements involved.
This is a short event, which only fills its slot with preparation and disentanglement from the wires. At this stage, it is a tech demo rather than a theatre show. I hope with further development and a few more iterations of the hardware, it might blossom into one.
Review by Ben Ross
Circus in a Bottle is a live performance presented using augmented reality.
We follow ‘The Barker’ who, despite growing up in the Circus, has inherited none of his family’s skills. Touring big tops with his grandiose father, he witnessed it all; acts that defied logic, defined generations and underlined the majesty of the sawdust ring. But now, those once great Circus names have vanished into history for good… or have they? The Barker and his miniature assistant recreate these Circus acts from bygone years before your very eyes. Once told, he packs these stories into a suitcase ready to take to the road.
Circus in a Bottle
DATE: Tuesday 29th March -Sunday 3rd April 2022
CRYPT- St Peter’s Bethnal Green, Saint Peter’s Close, London, E2 7AE