CIRCUS CHARMS with SeaSession at De Parade

There is nothing as exciting, with a few possible exceptions, as discovering a new artist. I first heard the work of the Russian poet, children’s writer and political activists Daniil Kharms on BBC Radio 4. I consequently became a fan, buying up books, hunting video clips and generally becoming a bit obsessed. Now, Kharms is not new – he died in 1942 at the age of 36 – but his work is not, or at least was not when I first encountered it, widely known. It was not until the 1970s that any of his writings were translated into English and only following Glasnost that his adult work received any sort of recognition in his home country.

What appealed to me was that his writings – mainly short stories, anecdotes even – bring together aspects of Dada and Surrealism and pre-empt the Theatre of the Absurd of Ionesco, Jean Genet and even Samuel Beckett.

So, it was with a great deal of pleasure and eager anticipation that I saw that SeaSession with Frank & René Groothof were performing Circus Charms at this year’s De Parade – Charms being another way of spelling the poet’s (not real) name which  manages a nice play on words at the same time.

There was a lot of great music from the excellent eight-piece, SeaSession. Valery Voronov and Pauline Post had put together an evocative cocktail of splendid 1920s Russian tunes by, among others, Shostakovich, Mosolov, Gnesin, and Polovinkin which created a perfect mood and ambiance for the entertainment.

The show was all in Dutch but the music, plus a lot of splendid visuals and circus/cabaret-type presentation, meant I got the full benefit of the show without perhaps understanding every word when we went along to see it in The Hague on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

This was a very physical show with a lot of slapstick, including well-worn circus sequences like the old face slapping routine, with the brothers Groothof clearly at home in this milieu. However, there was a story line to the show. One of the two was on stage ready to perform when he was rudely interrupted by a very dapper man from the audience who installed himself on stage claiming to be able fly. It turned out he couldn’t fly, but could bark like a dog. He couldn’t really do that either. There was another extended sequence about Brazil and parrots. The use of a lot of excellent animated projection and the band being all decked out in myriad exotic and colourful costumes, including a circus strongman on French horn, made the show a visual feast while retaining the rough edges of a circus performance.

The thing with Kharms’ work is that he makes the mundane extraordinary and the extraordinary mundane but it is always laid back, always pragmatic. Kharms the man was another kettle of fish. Eccentric, to say the least, he looked very strange, was chaotic and he constantly clashed with the authorities, finally narrowly escaping execution for treason during WW2. He died of starvation in a prison for the criminally insane of during the siege of Leningrad.

To me, the link to Kharms with this show was very tentative. Although it was all very entertaining, had I not known, I don’t think I would have immediately recognized the Russian writer here.

Circus Charms was quite short and I would happily have sat through another half hour. I really enjoyed the music of SeaSession and the performances of the brothers Groothof and I would certainly recommend this show to anyone. But was it Daniil Kharms . . . ?     Michael Hasted    19th July 2021

Photo by Astrid Burchardt