[This article was published in CircusMagazine #42 – March 2015]
[Author: Brecht Hermans – Photography: Jonah Samyn – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
Love is not always easy. Certainly not when you live with each other, day in and day out. Not when you create circus together, for example. How many plates have been smashed in artistic discussions during the washing up? For Bert and Fred, much more gets broken.
“8 years, 5 months, 4 weeks, 2 days” is not a reference to the Romanian winner of the Golden Palm in Canne – 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days – (though a circus performance about a forbidden abortion under the dictatorial regime of Ceausescu would be quite revolutionary!). No, the title refers to the number of days weeks months and years that Bert Loenders and Fréderique Snoeks have been a couple. Fingers crossed that there are no snakes in the grass for these loved ones!
Battle of the sexes
Let us be clear here: circus couple Bert and Fred have been together quite a long time. “And that is not always easy,” Bert admits in the microphone as the show begins. The ups and downs of a relationship, reflected in the ups and downs of a creative process: it’s a simple but strong concept. The comic tone is always near at hand. When the entire theater is laughing at Bert’s mischievous opening monologue, Fred wraps him up, tightly in his shirt, with a few flicks of the wrist, making immediately clear who wears the trousers in this couple, and setting the tone for a bitter battle between the sexes. A battle in which the balance of power can switch in a flash, and neither adversary can ever claim victory.
Bert & Fred play the audience as master circus comedians. Their numbers are refined to perfection, and the duo can bring the audience to raucus laughter with the turn of a hand or the arch of an eyebrow. They themselves remain deadly serious. They are not out to amuse themselves, but rather to bring all their professional skills to the task of richly entertaining their audience. Bert & Fred always keep their cool, creating a pure form of circus theatre with comic timing tuned to the millisecond.
This talent did not just appear overnight. It helps that many of Bert & Fred’s numbers have been part of their repertoire for a while now, tested and perfected in performances worldwide. The duo has regularily gathered up the prizes, but luckily, Bert and Fred are not playing it safe here: ‘8 years, 5 months, 4 weeks, 2 days’ is certainly not a collection of individual acts, stretched out into a full evening production. Bert & Fred know how to make a performance. The transitions flow without a hitch, and most of the time they also make dramaturgical sense as well. Occasionally the choice is one for pure fun: a celebration of love turns into a celebration for just about everything. A cake appears on stage out of nowhere. Of course it’s fun when that cake ends up in Bert’s face, but had the object been a more crucial one to the performance, this moment in the piece would have been more intriguing.
Caricatures of oneself
‘8 years, 5 months, 4 weeks, 2 days’ is first and foremost a comedy, with the intention to entertain and amuse. Bert & Fred succeed in this mission with brio. Usually they begin with a classical circus technique – knife throwing for example – and tweak that technique to serve their purposes. All sorts of sharp objects fall to the stage, and as if that wasn’t enough, the moment is accompanied by the scream of a chainsaw. In another example, the classic act from the days of black and white television, a flower snapped out of someone’s mouth with the crack of a whip, receives completely new ressonance in the context of the battling couple. Bert & Fred seem to draw inspiration from the past, but give it color with a contemporary sense of the absurd and a physical presence which reminds one of performance art.
Bert and Fred hold on consistently to their characters – caricatures of themselves. Fred is the tough chick, a strong woman you have to handle with care. Bert is the henpecked one. Before a dangerous stunt Fréderique always asks, “Ok?”. Bert answers, when all is secure, with “Ok.” This is a commom code in circus, but in this context it also speaks of the relationship between the two performers. Certainly when one hears the fear and trepidation in Bert’s seemingly positive response. Two short words reveal an entire palette of possibilities within the relationship. Simple, funny and not a word in excess. Unfortunately the same qualities do not hold true for all the scenes: the moment of reflection in which Bert muses over the adventures that he and his wife have had and will continue to have is an anomaly. The message; circus as metaphor for ones love life, is beautiful, but unfortunately doesn’t really come across in the delivery.
The same could be said for the scene in which Fred holds her breath as Bert shows his prowess on the straps. As long as he is in the air, she sticks her head in a bucket of water and is not allowed to breathe. Beside the fact that the link between the straps and the holding of ones breath is rather arbitrary, you cannot see if Fred is really holding her breath or not. In theatre things are often faked, so perhaps she has a mechanism to help her breathe. But even if you give her the benefit of the doubt, her struggle isn’t really credible. It doesn’t grab you as spectator, and that’s a shame, because as a result Bert’s cruelty in this scene doesn’t have its full impact. That cruelty would be in lovely contrast with his usual servility, and would add a layer of richness to his character. Certainly if he subsequently went on to assume his role as underdog.
Alongside all the madness, Bert and Fred show their acrobatic talent on the Washington trapeze. It is a treat to see how they stay in balance, on their heads, as the trapeze swings to and fro, but these virtuosic scenes add little to the story of their relationship, the context upon which this performance is built. The idea of linking the acts to a given of a couple cooking together, is a nice idea, and makes one think of Jan Fabre’s ‘Quando l’uomo principale é una donna’. Here as well was a story of the struggle between man and woman. In Fabre’s piece, Lisbeth Gruwez danced under a sky filled with bottles of olive oil, out of which drops of oil slowly fell to the ground. Gruwez tried in between dances to concoct the perfect martini. With each failure, she took off a piece of clothing and danced further. By the end she was totally naked, dripping with oil, divine womanhood, gliding across the floor. With Bert and Fred things are a bit more well-behaved, and admittedly, less powerful.
Nonetheless, Bert and Fred deliver almost an hour and a half of quality entertainment. Their circus almost resembles stand-up comedy. And that is where the duo’s talent lies. You could accuse them of not going deep enough into the several interesting themes waiting to be addressed – the man/woman relationship, the cruelty of a lover for the loved one, the contrast between a strong woman’s body and a subservient man – but Bert and Fred don’t go very deeply into all of that. They deliver their specialty; a convincing sampler of top-knotch humor. And for a very first theatre performance perhaps that is more than enough. Depth may arrive as the next ingredient, in the work to come.