Cirque Berserk's Martin Burton on his daredevil performers: 'This is their way of life'

Reimagining traditional circus for theatre, the international performers of Cirque Berserk! are committed to creating thrilling spectacle. Kate Copstick discovers what it’s like living on a knife-edge.

Cirque Berserk! Wall of Death. PIC: Piet Hein Out
Cirque Berserk! Wall of Death. PIC: Piet Hein Out

What is not to love about a circus created by a man who was in the same mime troupe as David Bowie, and which has, in its day, featured a slapstick routine involving a tub of pasta and Paul Newman as Butch Bolognaise?

Plus, for the budget conscious, you get more than 20% more action on the theatre stage than you would in a tent, because, for the acts, there is none of the traditional long 'milking it' parade into the ring. Just a step on stage.

About five minutes after I walk though the doors of the EICC, I have one of the most exciting moments of my life. Cirque Berserk are getting through a “complicated” and “problematic” tech/dress rehearsal.

Most Popular

    Cirque Berserk! PIC: Piet Hein Out

    Cirque is, as producer/creator/father figure and circus legend Martin Burton, aka Zippo the Clown, puts it, “traditional circus, reimagined for theatre”. Currently, of course, in residence in a conference centre. Some of the 'complications', in such situations, tend to stem from the differences in working relationship with tent circus riggers and theatre technical staff, says Martin.

    No one knows how to set a circus performer's rig better than that performer. Just to give you a little context, should a stand-up comic, a musical comedy troupe or even the tense cast of a drama have a “problematic” tech/dress rehearsal, there might be swearing and frustration, there might be stress and even tears. When a circus performer has a “problematic” tech/dress rehearsal, as Martin points out, there might be death.

    While some “problems” are fixed, I am treated to a walk around the set and stage with Martin.

    We stop in front of a white painted board.

    Cirque Berserk! PIC: Piet Hein Out

    “Knife throwing!” I nod, planting my back against it. At which point, a chunky, friendly looking guy walks past. “This is Toni,” says Martin. “At age 26 he became the world's fastest knife thrower.”

    Toni is Czech. His family are Romany, and I learn that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the use of the word 'gypsy'. Although, Martin points out, “the circus is not a very woke place.”

    “Go and get your knives Toni.” Toni does. There are about 16 of them. They are big.

    “Try not to cut her,” instructs Martin and, as I stand staring at Tony, Tony sends the knives hurtling my way. It all happens so fast and it is only when I move my head to look sideways that I realise how close the blades are to me. Very close.

    Cirque Berserk! PIC: Piet Hein Out

    It is one of the many things to admire and love about circus: the integration of performance and life is total. “This is not their job,” says Martin. “This is their way of life.”

    Their comfort and confidence in their own skills means that Toni will give a muggle like me the thrill of his skill in much the same way Paul Hollywood might offer me an angel cake to demonstrate how handy he is with the self-raising flour, safe in the knowledge that it just will not have a soggy bottom.

    Neither did I, FYI. But it was a truly, viscerally thrilling experience.

    The circus is, I hear again and again, a family. It has to be. They travel together, live together and, frequently, hold each other's lives in their hands. “It is a deal,” says Martin. “I ask them to risk their lives each night and they ask me to take care of everything else.” Circus people, real circus people, are different. One clown (professional, not metaphorical) left the Berserkus and Martin sat him down and explained to him about life outside, about household bills and getting medical help and everything else. Two months later the clown phoned up in a horrified panic. “He had no idea that things like electricity bills come every month,” says Martin.

    Cirque Berserk! PIC: Piet Hein Out

    Once the sheer, pore-opening thrill of my ten seconds as a knife thrower's assistant has worn off, I meet Paulo dos Santos, from Brazil via Cirque du Soleil and Ringlings Circus. Paulo turned a childhood of being bullied in Brazil into a Capoeira World Championship and now mixes the skills with amazing tumbling acrobatics, and the ability to do things with a giant balloon that make you realise why giggling was created. I am not going to spoil the extraordinary thrill you will get from his final appearance on stage. But it is beautiful. And a 38-year-old man with achondroplasia, physically, should not be able to do it. But he does. This is Paulo. That is circus.

    Of course I head off into the wingspace to fondle Lucius Zafalon's Yamaha 125s. His motorbikes of choice. At the climax of the show, they will fill the Globe of Death. All five of them. With riders. Doing 60 miles per hour. In every direction. Inside a big (but not that big) globe. He has been doing it since he was 15. And has broken just about every bone in his body. Currently three ribs, as I discover when I hug Lucius enthusiastically and he winces, even through his body armour. “But this is normal,” he says.

    Of course, recent times have been complicated and problematic in so many ways for an internationally cast, internationally touring circus. Edinburgh might never get to see the Cirque's Ukrainian strongman, as the Home Office failed to process his visa in time. Well, they only had nine weeks to stamp it. For a thousand quid… Covid closed things down, opened them up again and closed them down some more and, although at some points tents were regarded as outdoor performances, eventually no one could escape lockdown. And not all made it home. An entire troupe of Afghani acrobats ended up living in the circus's Newbury base, looked after by the locals and a food bank.

    Worst of all, Martin says the circus will never tour internationally again. But it is here. Now. Just saying.

    Cirque Berserk! Pleasance at EICC, until 28 August.