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Bring on the Clowns The best medicine

JAMES WALSH is therapeutically disrobed by a disarmingly attentive exploration of harsh truths and nonsense

Julia Masli: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Soho Theatre

Can a clown save the world? 

This probably wasn’t what Julia Masli, an Estonian performer trained by the notorious Parisian pedagogue Philippe Gaulier, had set out to achieve with her latest. Still, you never know. Masli always aims high, with seemingly limitless reserves of care, poise, and life-affirming naivete.

And after an hour of this staggering, beautiful, and heartfelt show, your correspondent is a convert to the idea of free Masli on the NHS. It’s called ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, but it was never supposed to be funny — or so its author claims. Instead, a Bjork-esque elfin alien, Masli in a typically ludicrous outfit, attempts to solve the audience’s problems, whether big or small, serious or inconsequential.

And what’s scary is, she often succeeds.

Masli is such an open-hearted performer, with such mastery of physical comedy that she can make you laugh with a single withering glance or deadpan wide-eyed stare. Her cod-spiritual entrance, to soothing chimes and nonsensical chants, is a wonderfully judged and paced exploration of tension. The audience don’t know what to expect, and — with stillness, gentle tellings off, and one sudden explosion of violence — she keeps them utterly transfixed.

“Problem?” she asks a random man in the front row, via a microphone at the end of a false leg. 

Absurd, perhaps, but Masli is deadly earnest. Those who take her seriously are rewarded, and as the audience eventually figure out what’s going on — tonight’s crowd are a touch tentative — the room relaxes and transforms into a safe space. 

This is a magic circle, a rare and worthy trick of intimacy and love, where problems as diverse as having a bad haircut, hating your kids, or falling out with someone who works in the international weapons trade are dealt with equal respect, honesty, and communal healing. Doesn’t sound like a comedy show, does it? But my Jeebus, how we laughed through the pain. Here, we are helped my Masli’s otherworldly guidance and control, aided and raised by her intentionally exaggerated foreignness and childlike rejection of polite norms.

One audience member is invited for a game of laser tag. Another is repeatedly removed from the venue for daring to claim to be problem free. There are harsh truths amid the nonsense. We will all die, and maybe that guy who directly facilitates the bombing of children shouldn’t be your friend any more. But also, tired mothers deserve rest and relaxation, and hair, like many things, should be collectivised.

There are also several brilliant twists and set pieces, which help provide structure and keep things moving on towards a wholly satisfying conclusion. Masli isn’t afraid to tackle the big themes, as seen in her last show, Choosh, a very moving exploration of migration and belonging. Here, she reaches for true universality, and also our socks. One per audience member will be ritualistically burned in a bin in a clearing in Epping Forest.

This is a show about being human. About vulnerability, loss, and fear. But it’s also about hope, and how the people that surround us might, if we talk to them, turn out to be people we can help, and thereby, help and heal ourselves.

Heading into the Soho night with one thrillingly cold ankle, I never felt more alive.

Runs until February 24. Box office: 020 7478 0100, sohotheatre.com

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