In 1997 I was told to beg, borrow or steal a ticket to see something called Slava’s Snowshow at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre. Never mind that it was mid-July and 80 degrees outside, I would be a fool to miss this. Apparently.
Well, it blew my mind – so much so that I went to see it again the next night. Since then, I’ve seen Snowshow a further three times, so last week at The Lowry in Salford was my sixth. Each time has been a little different; a little scene added here, a character there. Whereas during the first few incarnations the protagonist was played by the legendary clown Slava Polunin himself, in recent years the hero has been played by younger, but no less accomplished, buffons.
It’s still as bold as ever and the narrative as simple, if one exists at all. So what’s it about? Maybe…clown meets girl, clown loses girl, clown goes to frozen wasteland to find girl. Is that what it’s about? Or is it about spider webs, giant fluffy telephones and floating balls? Boats, trains and a hangman’s noose? It’s about all and none of these things.
It’s about the joy of the moment and all of these individual pieces of pure theatre. It’s about being present and integral to that moment, and it challenges our desire to make narrative sense of things. The whole piece is held together by the sheer physical expertise and exquisite comic precision of the performers, married to the way we, as an audience, are asked to respond to magic. The cast plays with the audience, not to the audience. That’s where the real meaning is. It’s in the play, in the true meaning of the word.
What was different for me was that this time I had brought my four-year-old son along for the ride. Watching for the sixth time, the twists and surprises obviously weren’t there for me anymore (and if you have never been, please don’t watch any trailers as they feature almost ALL the good bits) but I still laughed like a drain throughout. No, the real joy for me was watching my son seeing it for the first time. He didn’t need a coherent narrative. He cried at the bits I had cried at, laughed at moments I hadn’t even noticed before and stood in open-mouthed awe at the climactic…, well, you’ll need to go and see it to discover the coup de théâtre at the show’s climax.
It’s not too much of a secret that once the show is finished, the auditorium is filled with countless giant inflatable coloured balls, which are then bounced around the space by the audience. The cast stands on stage, occasionally pushing balls back into the throng, but mainly watching the adults in the crowd whom they have transformed into children again. The cast becomes the audience and we are the show. Maybe we adults need clowns more than children do.
By Chris Payne
Slava’s Snowshow regularly tours theatres and is currently on at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London until January 5, 2015. If you’re planning a trip to that there London, click here for more info.