It is always harder to criticise a show that’s based on personal history because you’re often dealing with very real and often very present pain. The three performers in As a Tiger in the Jungle – an international production from Ali Williams and Circus Xanti – joined the circus as a result of human trafficking. Renu Ghalan and Aman Tamang were trafficked aged five. In a recent interview, Ghalan said, “I was in the circus in India for nine years, from age five to age 14. I don’t like talking about what happened to me there.”
There is something uneasy about this discomfort being translated into a show where he is forced to retell parts of his story every night. If the production was exceptionally brilliant, perhaps it would lend the show a level of honesty, or humility, or rawness. But a traumatic true story does not immediately make good theatre.
This piece, although a pleasantly entertaining hour with some good circus skills, does not justify the adaptation of real suffering. If we’re not being blown away by the injustice of their story, then we’re just witnessing their pain. That they speak very little English in the piece adds to the feeling that we, as an audience, are somehow exploiting them.
On a bamboo-like structure, Loan TP Hoang, Ghalan and Tamang clamber about. Tamang scrambles around a hamster cage, lifted by Hoang as he leaps up to drop her by the rope that holds them together, two weighing scales tipping up and over. Later the cage is replaced with a ring, and they glide over each other, almost embracing as their skin breezes past. Ghalan and Tamang are the more agile, leaping and twisting, while Hoang narrates, relating their stories with wide-eyed horror, as you would a ghost story round a campfire.
But director Sverre Waage’s script tips the story tips into melodrama with moralistic, storybook tropes that feel a little over the top. The attempts to combine the actions with the words are the weakest parts of the production. It is strongest when the choreography stands alone.
In one section of the dance, Ghalan and Tamang fight. They chuck themselves at each other with the full force of their weight. But just as their sibling is about to fall, their weight appears to slide off and they glide to the floor rather than thump. They flip when they should fall. A light touch moves into a violent thud. They are so utterly in control of their bodies they seem to defy physics.
After the fight, they sit, their bodies touching. One looks at the other. The other looks away. Their gaze glides past each other, just falling short of making contact. It is these moments of silence and beautiful movement that stand out, but it is the melodramatic script and the uncomfortable morals of the piece that linger.
One of the last pieces of choreography involves Ghalan dangling from and dancing around a length of fabric. He dresses up for it, demonstrating to us that he is acting. Then he sheds the costume and he winds himself up and up and up in the fabric. He knots himself into it, his muscles shaking and hair sweating. It feels like an act of self-harm.
How can we congratulate something that feels like exploitative?