Inside the elephant at the heart of ‘Circus 1903’

A roll-call of acrobats, contortionists, jugglers and trapeze artistes will be captivating London audiences this Christmas season in a show that celebrates the golden age of circus acts.

But some of the performers at the heart of “Circus 1903” will be largely hidden from view, inside the life-size – and eerily lifelike – puppet elephants that give the spectacle a decidedly 21st-century twist.

“I think we’re taking … an old-fashioned circus and (giving it) … a modern take. And with that comes the magic of puppetry,” puppeteer Luke Chadwick-Jones told.

“Inside I have really impaired vision because of the way that the suit is designed, but I can see just about enough to maneuver and not bump into anything.”

For puppetry director Mervyn Millar, replicating on a far larger scale the animatronics he mastered as part of the original creative team on the National Theatre’s ground-breaking drama “War Horse” was a major challenge.

“We’re working with aluminum as a kind of base skeleton and then on top of that there are shells which are made out of types of thermoplastic mesh that we’ve had to make from scratch really …,” he said. “So it was a long process.”

As attitudes towards animals in captivity have changed over the past 20 years, the use of wild animals in British circuses has declined dramatically, with just two shows featuring them by 2017, according to data from animal rights group Born Free.

That “Circus 1903”, marking its European premiere with a three-week Festival Hall run that starts on Wednesday, still manages to give such a clear nod to a time when no big top was complete without its own menagerie lends the show an added poignancy.

“It allows you that reflection back on how things were in 1903 but without the need for animals,” said British Veterinary Association President Simon Doherty. “I think it’s really clever.”


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