Punchdrunk-style circus show Shelter Me puts audience in the centre of the action

Shelter Me by Circumference in association with Theatre Delicatessen. Picture: Richard Davenport

Shelter Me by Circumference in association with Theatre Delicatessen. Picture: Richard Davenport - Credit: Richard Davenport

Circumference’s debut show is an immersive reflection on an online world, finds Alex Bellotti.


You really can’t move in London at the moment for the amount of plays eager to discuss mankind’s relationship with technology, but at Theatre Delicatessen, an ambitious new circus show is taking the subject to new heights.

Shelter Me, the debut production by circus troupe Circumference, runs in Farringdon until July 5. Reflecting on a world where social networks are changing the way people interact, it uses Punchdrunk-style immersive performance to make the audience part of the action through a dazzling array of acrobatics, theatre, dance and digital art.

“I think [the idea] started because we’re such an international company and being friends, we spend a lot of time communicating over the internet,” explains performer Aislinn Mulligan when I visit the group in rehearsals. “There’s a tension between how technology makes our lives easier but also makes it harder to communicate in real life.”

Communication is certainly a core theme of the show, with the audience encouraged to not just observe but bond with the performers.

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While each spectator will be able to get within a few feet of the acrobatics itself, they will also be sent text messages throughout the night from the crew, exploring what director Maia Alexander calls “the question of access” we face in day to day life.

Roland Smith, the co-artistic director of Theatre Delicatessen, who are hosting the show and developing it with Circumference, shows me how the piece begins at the back of the building, where a giant ‘Chinese Pole’ had been sunken into a derelict caravan.

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From there, crowds are led into a bar where they first encounter the performers, before they are led into atmospheric basement levels and then elevated up to the rooftop, where spectacular views of London are complemented by a gravity defying trapeze for the show’s finale.

Jackson’s Lane, who also support Circumference, have previously described the group as the “Velvet Underground of circus” and there’s no doubt that even in their debut effort, they’re trying to push the young art-form beyond its usual perimeters.

The intimacy of acrobatics, I’m told, is contrasted by the massive mobile networks we carry in our pockets, and they aim to form a narrative around this almost exclusively through movement.

The challenge, Mulligan says, is “to get beyond the abstract; to make a piece that can be expressive without becoming so literal that it becomes theatre.”

“We’ve done a lot of work on making it interactive,” adds fellow performer Pablo Menue. “It’s about saying I’m not a god in the air, I’m a human being and I’m going to show you how this works.”

Squeezed up against the walls of a corridor as acrobat Nich Galzin tears past in a gigantic circus wheel, it certainly occurs to me that this is a different kettle of fish to a spectacle such as Cirque du Soleil.

Can Circumference pull it off? It remains to be seen, but they’re taking circus in a brave new direction, one that appears to be closer than ever before.

Shelter Me runs at Theatre Delicatessen (in the old Guardian House), 119 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3DA until July 5. Visit circumference.org.uk for details and tickets.

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