Sadler’s Wells, London
September 15, 2021
The best clowns have a dark side to them. Those in Clowns, the opening work of Double Murder, Hofesh Shechter’s new double bill, are darker and more malevolent than most. It’s easy to see it simply as a sarcastic reflection on the indifference to violence many people seem to have nowadays. But Clowns is more than that. It’s impossible not to view it as much as a commentary and mirror on the dog-eat-dog nature of society generally: a world where people will do anything to get on. To some extent, mankind has always been like that, of course, but it does seem to be getting more commonplace.
Dressed in costumes that hint at both Regency and circus clown, ten dancers hold hands like guests at a ball. They shift from foot to foot in a gentle and civil dance. But it doesn’t last for long. Presided over by a troubling ringmaster, Clowns very quickly turns into a macabre comedy in which no-one is laughing.
It is carnage; and just when you think it couldn’t possibly, it gets darker still. Every conceivable way of violent death is mimicked. Throats are slit, chests slashed. People are garrotted, stabbed and repeatedly punched. Heads are smashed on the floor. Some even run each other through with swords. They repeat and repeat, the victims rising time and again only to fall once more, or to become the aggressor. There are times when the dancers seem almost hypnotised, sucked into a circle of death from which there is no escape.
Perhaps it says much that, while the orgy of murderous violence shocks at first, any feelings of repulsion soon pass, however. Is that we know it is not real, or have we really become so desensitised to it? Clowns does make you think, though. Is this really how humankind is? It may be at different depths, but is there a coarse, aggressive, ugly side somewhere within all of us?
There are several natural conclusions. The cast even take bows. But the work instead and unfortunately ploughs on into a way too long series of choreographed curtain calls during which the cast remind us of images already seen. The spell, though, has been broken.
Shechter’s new creation, The Fix, brings a complete change. He describes it as trading in “the most valuable currency of our time: hope.” I found it remarkably compelling, far more so than Clowns, although I suspect it needs that first piece to have that impact.
It starts off not dissimilarly to some scenes in the opening work but there’s immediately a different feel. Gone is the non-stop, pumping energy and murderous intent. There is still energy, and lots of it, but it’s now more fragile. The fact that fragility doesn’t break maybe says something about the human spirit being stronger than sometimes we might think.
Right from the off, dancers embrace. Touch is more tender. A fall is now met with a saving catch. There’s compassion too; and lots of it. Moments hint at love, loss and shared experience. There are silent screams. Extended moments of complete stillness too, in which the cast of seven sit as it meditating, although one senses the mind is still working overtime. When they rise, they hug in yet another powerful demonstration of the sense of support and togetherness that ripples through the piece.
Shechter’s dancers are again outstanding. The big picture is conveyed superbly, but it’s the small detail that really strikes home, whether done individually, or magnified through whole-ensemble unison.
Towards the end, The Fix shifts from thoughtful to almost celebratory, as if hope has become reality and we have emerged from our travails. Scars remain, however, and the pain has not entirely gone away, evidence by one of the men screaming as if in a nightmare, held down and comforted by the others. It all feels very real, and is very easy to relate to.
If the nature of The Fix, undoubtedly Shechter but as we have rarely seen him, comes as a surprise, the end is even more so. The dancers leave the stage and (masked up) hug members of the audience. It is a cathartic, near spiritual moment. Normally, I would try to avoid taking part in such moments but here I really did want to participate.
Touring the UK this autumn is Shechter II in Political Mother Unplugged, a new version of Shechter’s iconic 2010 work. Again, visit hofesh.co.uk for dates and venues.