Cirque du Soleil's Totem

Review - Cirque du Soleil's Totem at the Royal Albert Hall

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Cirque du Soleil's annual post-Christmas London residency at the Royal Albert Hall has become as synonymous with this grand concert venue as the summertime BBC Proms; and while some of the nine big top and arena shows they've brought here over the years since they first appeared here in 1996 have felt excessively padded and occasionally even generic, Totem could be said to be totemic of this brand at its fantastic best.

That's when a true theatricality informs the usual parade of astounding feats and astonishing spectacle. It's all about the packaging - few modern theatre-makers have a greater command of form as well as content as the visionary Quebecois director Robert Lepage, one of the most influential of all world directors whose practice has inspired creators as diverse as Rupert Goold and Ivo van Hove. If Lepage - whose own theatrical epics span personal stories, continents and technologies - and Cirque seem, at first, to be an unlikely marriage, the former's resourcefulness and the latter's resources turn out to create true theatrical magic.

Cirque du Soleil's Totem at the Royal Albert Hall

There's also a kind of awakening, delight and mischief in a show that nominally traces the story of evolution, with life emerging from water and its interactions with other creatures, to taking flight, literally, to evoke primal passions and primary skills.

There's often been a paradoxically dehumanising effect to some of the super-human feats on display - the precision and perfectionism of what you see can be at once as draining as it is exhilarating. But Lepage's meticulously created environment here makes it all seem part of a natural order of wonder.

The usual circus line-up of unicyclists (who throw small bowls to land precisely on each other's heads), trapeze gymnasts and an astonishingly agile diabolo act make me wonder just how and why these acts have been concocted. There are breath-taking feats everywhere you look: an aerial trapeze act between a man and a woman is a thrillingly choreographed display of intimacy and trust, as they weave in and out of each other's bodies while suspended from a solitary ring. Another rollerskating couple demonstrates a similar trust as the man flies the woman at great speed around him.

Totem is also stunningly lit and underscored by a live musical soundtrack that is transmitted in surround sound, appearing from different areas of the arena. This show totally delivers on its promise to thrill audiences anew.  

Totem is at the Royal Albert Hall ​until 26th February. 

Totem tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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