City of Clowns

Raymond Keane as Fibrils in 'City of Clowns' by Barabbas. Photo: Pat Redmond

Raymond Keane as Fibrils in 'City of Clowns' by Barabbas. Photo: Pat Redmond

Barabbas lives on, despite the vicissitudes of funding cuts that threatened its survival. This version of City of Clowns is, in the words of Peter Crawley “a pared-down post-boom show.” Crawley’s interview with the Director, Maria Fleming, gives a fascinating background to the contraction of vision which she and Raymond Keane were obliged to make to the original concept of City, in the face of post-tiger penury.

At An Grianán, City of Clowns is fundamentally a one-man tour-de-force by Keane, red-nose supremo, touching on the history and state of mankind, playing exuberant games with the medium of theatre, with the support of Trevor Knight’s soundscape and Ciarán O'Melia’s design. The audience is ushered through back-stage corridors, totally eschewing any contact with the auditorium, to share the stage with the performer. Here, O’Melia has created a space like a darkened IKEA warehouse, dominated by stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes – huge, medium, large and small. An uneasy silence prevails, there’s not a human footfall to be heard.

Then a large, taped-up cardboard crate begins to move, as if of its own volition, over and over, forward and back. There’s a struggle in motion, some frantic scraping, and then the man-clown emerges. It’s a birth moment, a Beckett moment.

Keane’s performance is beautiful, nuanced – each gesture conveys frailty, vulnerability, bewilderment, an emaciated figure dressed in a cross between a babygro and overalls. His movements are studied – intense, precise, and microscopically accurate – and his language is tentative, almost wordless.

What follows is an exploration of his confines and an engagement with emotion and experience. The overwhelming image is of Man struggling with existence; his futile efforts to be master of his environment. His attempt to cut the lights is another piece of theatrical hypnosis. He wrestles with a tall ladder, reaches the junction box but, even when he has disconnected the power, the lights come on again. The actions are immediate, physical and yet they are charged with the metaphysical.

A tiny box becomes a babe in arms – to be cuddled and comforted; there’s a story, Rumpelstiltskin, and a lullaby. There’s chilling moment that touches on death and cremation. The illusion becomes emotionally charged as disbelief is suspended. Absurd really, all this tenderness for a piece of cardboard! The transformative power of acting, which simulates tenderness, parental anxiety and love - Keane’s acting has the power to hold the audience in that illusion and to feel for it.

Fibrils – that is his name – plays with a trolley that facilitates games with the boxes and (he mutters, barely audibly) “audience participation”. A mannequin serves momentarily as a lover, but disappointment follows as its lifelessness is grasped. The foreman’s brown coat, draped over said mannequin, is more promising; Fibrils struts his hour with pen and clip-board among the boxes, taking command, moving goods from one point to another. But he is trapped in this cardboard city, solitary and homeless. He attempts escape. Fibrils is the "poor bare forked animal", and his plight is universal. The immediate experience of Keane’s gestures and expressions is concrete but behind and beyond lie the abstract components of man’s condition: bewilderment, ineptitude, grief, despair, fear.

The spell is broken by the resolution, a moment of transition: the boxes part, light floods in and with it comes a boy (strong echo of Godot). He gestures to the clown that he should follow; Fibrils, in turn, gestures to the audience to do likewise.

The intervention of an outside world seems arbitrary, fantastical. The audience trails through the bowels of the theatre – the wings, a scenery dock, a storage room – into a space populated by clowns, presumably the city of clowns. It’s a bizarre and impressionistic world. (The Barabbas website tells you how they acquired this heterogeneous cast.) But it’s an ending that does not come off. Raymond Keane can, on his own, as Fibrils, transcend the here-and-now. This mixing and mingling with the extras at the end compounds a sense of anti-climax. The intensity and the pathos that dominated the warehouse-set have been dissipated. The randomness and puzzlement is irritating, rather than mystifying. To find the full-stop, Keane almost steps out of character and, despite a curtain-call bow from all, he feels obliged to tell us (mouthing the words) that it’s over and to indicate the exit.

Derek West

  • Review
  • Theatre

City of Clowns by Raymond Keane

3 - 20 July, 2011; on tour.

Produced by Barabbas Theatre Company
In An Grianán

Directed by Maria Fleming


Set and Lighting Design: Ciaran O’Melia

Costume Design: Marie Tierney

Sound Composition: Trevor Knight

With: Raymond Keane


Presented at the Clonmel Junction Festival 2011 (3 - 6 July, 2011) and Earagail Arts Festival (19 and 20 July, 2011).