IT’S 1996 and, as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe begins, there’s concern at the Assembly Rooms about one of this year’s big shows.
It’s a clown piece from Russia which has won a Time Out Award in London, but nobody in Scotland knows what something with the mysterious name of Slava’s Snowshow could be. Business at the box office is sluggish.
The marketing department takes emergency action. Publicist Liz Smith has seen the show in London and knows it has the potential to be a hit. “I thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen,” she says today. “But then, in the first week it came to Assembly, it hadn’t sold and it wasn’t being talked about.”
To make sure it was talked about, she started giving tickets away in the belief that word-of-mouth would do the rest. The plan worked.
“We absolutely papered it for the first four or five days and then the following week you couldn’t get a ticket,” she says. “I remember people coming up to me and saying they’d like a ticket and I’d say, ‘I’m really sorry, you can’t get one now’.”
It was the only show on that year’s Fringe that created a real buzz and it was a crucial step in Snowshow’s road to global success. Two years later, it won the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment after its run at London’s Old Vic and it has now been seen by more than three million spectators in 120 cities in 30 countries. In Russia, a book has been published called The Philosophy Of Snowshow, with an English translation due out next year. Still going strong after more than 4,000 performances, it is back at Edinburgh Festival Theatre after its last sell-out run in 2011.
For chief clown Slava Polunin, it’ll be a delight to be back in a city that holds such happy memories. “The British people just opened the doors to this show,” he says. “Edinburgh is a great festival. It’s such a happiness and joy to be there. You can be there with or without a show, just being there, hanging around – it’s such a specific atmosphere when the whole town is living the same event. I’m dreaming about going there again.”
A world away from the knockabout pratfalls of the big top, Snowshow is poetic and poignant, a performance that turns the popular spectacle of clowning into a high art of visual grace. Full of magical transformations, it blends slapstick with beautiful imagery, gradually building towards the triumphant closing sequence in which Polunin rips up a love letter only to watch it turn into a blizzard of snowflakes.
The joy is infectious and, indeed, connecting to the audience is something he can’t avoid. “We have no choice because the people who are on the stage are in society, they are living life with people,” he says. “They can’t just be on stage and demonstrate something. What they need is to party and to be happy together with other people, with the audience.”
Born in 1950 in the small town of Novosil, 225 miles south of Moscow, Polunin had an early love of Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau which developed into an obsession with clowning. After training in St Petersburg, he honed his skills in mime, street theatre and visual comedy, setting up his first company, Litsedei, in 1979.
He learnt not only from silent cinema but also from the silence of the great mime artists on stage. “The silence of Marceau was a great silence, a cosmic, magic silence,” says Polunin, who is also artistic director of the St Petersburg Circus. “I’ve also seen wonderful silence in the early shows of Jean-Louis Barrault [the French actor, director and mime artist]. It inspired me so much. I consider the greatest show on stage to be a silent one. Charlie Chaplin used music so it wasn’t complete silence, but as a teacher, a master, he has a very important place for me. I love Chaplin’s contemporary, Harry Langdon, even more. Langdon was much more fine tuned, much more tender, so I love him more than Chaplin.”
Inheriting a tradition that dates back to the theatre of ancient Greece and Rome, Polunin practises the art of the outsider. He is the figure of fun who is secretly the wisest of all, the stumbling fool who is actually more dextrous than anyone, the grown-up man who has never lost his child-like sense of wonder and imagination. A clown, he says, is a “person who, on entering the room, brings joy and love for life”.
Although it has its origins in the late 1980s, Snowshow has been reinventing itself ever since. Polunin believes in the importance of spontaneity and goes to great lengths to ensure he and his company stay creative. It means giving them holidays and encouraging them to develop outside interests – and it also means shaking things up every night. “This is a science and I am expert in it,” he says. “You always have to find a new creative challenge for the team to keep the stage activity interesting. My performers know which part they are going to perform only half an hour before the show. All the time, we change direction, change the style and the mood of the show. That’s very important to keep it interesting and fresh.” n
• Slava’s Snowshow, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 3-6 December