English Baroque is the third in a series of collaborations between the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Circa Contemporary Circus. In the first two shows the respective artistic directors, Paul Dyer and Yaron Lifschitz, have bounced around ideas and showmanship, artforms and artists, to come up with dazzling pieces of theatre. English Baroque is no exception.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, English Baroque with CircaAustralian Brandenburg Orchestra’s English Baroque with Circa. Photo © Steven Godbee

The visual inspiration for this show is the formal garden of a 17th-century stately home: a green lawn edged with white plinths, just begging to be adorned with classical statues. (I’m sure I’m not the only one remembering The Draughtsman’s Contract). The musical inspiration starts in the theatre, with the stage music of Purcell, and ends at the country fair, with a series of traditional songs and dances given the Brandenburg twist. In the end, however, both visual and musical delights are upstaged by the extraordinary acrobatics of the seven Circa artists who play the statues which come to life, redesigning the space with their own, fantastical sculptures created through feats of strength, balance and flexibility.

Drifting through this magical landscape is singer Jane Sheldon. And while the often frantic and virtuosic musical accompaniment is occasionally overwhelmed by the physical pyrotechnics, Sheldon’s unique voice cuts through the textures to fill the hall with clean, bright sound. It’s at its most refreshing in the Purcell, most dazzling in an aria from Handel’s Alceste, and at its most affecting in her restrained, soulful rendition of Scarborough Fair. She’s joined by soprano Lauren Stephenson for a beautifully blended duet of Handel’s De torrente in via from Dixit Dominus.

Meanwhile, there is a lot going on in the garden. Each of the Circa artists brings their own repertoire of extravagant ability to the stage: there are the strong men, who bear one, two, three, even four people on their shoulders; there are the displays of balletic grace while suspended in mid-air; the balancing acts where a man rides a board sitting on a metal cylinder, sitting on other metal cylinder, sitting on another… As the evening unfolds, so do the dizzying array of impossibilities, to the point that doing the splits while balanced on two people’s heads seems almost, well, do-able. OK, perhaps not do-able. Not for me, anyway.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s English Baroque with Circa. Photo © Steven Godbee

The excitement of the audience builds through the show. Delight and amusement are just the beginning: by the end there are gasps of amazement and the kind of relieved laughter that comes after watching something you definitely won’t be trying at home. Not to mention the laughter involved in a slightly awkward segment of audience participation. And the full-throated roar as the auditorium springs to its feet at the conclusion.

English Baroque is not a concert or an opera. In the spirit of Purcell and 17th-century England, it is a magnificent masque, entertaining and amazing in equal parts. If it lacks the narrative edge and emotional punch of Spanish Baroque, it makes up for them in the to-die-for costumes (Libby McDonnell), and brilliant lighting design (Peter Rubie).

English Baroque runs until May 17 in Sydney, with performances in Melbourne on May 18 and 19, and in Brisbane on May 21


Buy a Limelight subscription as a gift