Review by Bradley Ward
Spectacle is often treated as a dirty word in contemporary theatre. In the age of CGI-driven, franchise cinema, it’s easy to understand why: spectacle is often used as a stopgap, filling an artistic void lacking in character, narrative, or sincere emotion. For those of you left cynical by this approach, I submit to you Slava’s Snowshow as a potential antidote.
Slava’s Snowshow is not a new production. In fact, it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, having premiered in Russia in 1993 and been travelling the world ever since. It has not lost any of its sparkle in the intervening years. It is, according to its advertising, a family friendly clown show, celebrating the magic of winter and the wonder of imagination through a series of comedic sketches. In practice though, Slava’s Snowshow is more complex than this description lets on. It is rooted firmly in the traditions of the European schools of clowning, finding amusement in sadness and loneliness in moments of laughter. A classic comedy bit that has become so pervasive that it recently found its way onto America’s Got Talent was reperformed here with such a truly devastating level of emotional honesty that it likely brought a tear to a few audience member’s eyes. Its cast of characters – all identical except for one central character that looks like a rough first draft of Ronald McDonald – are painted less like the fluorescent jesters one would see at the circus and more like lost and ragged souls, trudging aimlessly through the snow and creating mischief as their only distraction. They are slow. They do not zip around the stage creating chaos, but carefully and painstakingly build moments of entertainment. The pacing and pathos on display resulted in long stretches where no laughter could be heard from the audience, much to the consternation of some of the more grim-faced Sydney audience members seated near me who had expected more props and pratfalls. Slava’s Snowshow doesn’t seem to care about those audience members. Slava’s Snowshow aims for something beyond a standard clown show.
If you are a theatregoer that needs a coherent plot, this show is not for you. Plot is thin on the ground here, and what little plot you can find is fractured and quickly abandoned by the performers. Additionally, if you need relatable characters, perhaps best to avoid Slava’s Snowshow. The performers do a remarkable job at teasing out individual personalities for their identically dressed clowns, but these personalities do not ever evolve into anything resembling complex characterisation. Which is fine. Plot and character are not the targets for which these performers are aiming. Their target is spectacle, and they hit it with panache. This show is packed with stage images that are arresting and memorable. Each moment of extravagance is earned, building upon previous comedic bits, or serving as the conclusion of what little plot the show occasionally has. At times, the show dipped into moments of surrealism, producing haunting images that would not be out of place in a David Lynch film. It offers little explanation for these moments. I, personally, did not seek any explanation. I was happy to just experience these moments of wonder for what they were. Slava’s Snowshow is a celebration of imagination, and, unlike the mind-numbing spectacle of modern cinema, it uses its spectacle to make its audience feel. Oftentimes, it was to make us feel joy; sometimes, to make us feel terror; consistently to make us feel like wonderous children; and in its most special moments, to make us feel included.
I have avoided describing any specific moments from the show as I truly believe it is something that should be witnessed for the first time with unsuspecting eyes. However, I will provide this one spoiler free detail: the show uses small rectangle pieces of paper to represent snow, which falls freely from the roof above the stage throughout the entire show. For the first time in my theatregoing life, the auditorium of the theatre did not clear out within minutes of the show ending. For at least twenty minutes, a third of the audience stayed behind and played with the “snow”. Children and adults alike, laughing and reminiscing and playing. On my walk back to the train station, the streets of Sydney were peppered with “snow”, signs that other fans of the show had passed by not long before. Two days later, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a piece of “snow”. I couldn’t help but smile.
This show is not for everyone. It is esoteric. It is profoundly weird and confusing at times. It is not the sort of show that a casual theatregoing audience is accustomed to, and its advertising does not prepare you for how truly wild it can be. However, it is also unique, funny, moving, and deeply fascinating. I urge you, if it comes to your hometown, to give it a try. Leave your cynicism at the door and commit yourself to the fever dream that is Slava’s Snowshow.