Lanciatore – The Juggling Man

Narrated by three prostitutes, and played out in a medieval Italian circus, Rawlife Theatre Company's new production is an allegory on the art sector's current plight

Narrated by three prostitutes, played out in a circus ring and set in medieval Italy, the latest play from Rawlife Theatre Company is shaping up to be a hit. Lanciatore – The Juggling Man (pronounced Lance–ee–a-tor–ay), is written by Belfast writer/director Paul Kennedy, and tells the story of the ill-fated circus performer who longs for a better life.

Determined to acquire some of the wealth he sees around him, Lanciatore persuades his wife, a contortionist, to leave the life they know and aim for better. With a young family to support and with juggling his only skill to fall back on, however, Lanciatore soon discovers that working as an artist won’t line his pockets with gold.

Lanciatore – The Juggling Man is aptly being performed at the Belfast Circus School during its run as part of the 2015 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. It will also show in the same venue the weekend after the festival ends. With limited seating, tickets are sure to be snapped up quickly.

The darkly comic play is co-directed by Rawlife artistic director Martin McSharry and actor Patrick J O’Reilly. McSharry previously helped to revive the short play after launching a programme of lunchtime shows in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Meanwhile, O’Reilly’s training at the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris adds a dynamic edge to all that he does. Both fit well at the helm of this new production.

'The play is set in medieval Italy during an economic downturn,' says McSharry. 'I first heard a reading of the play back in 2010 as part of Sunday in the City, which was run by Belfast City Council. We were in the middle of our own economic downturn then, and it really spoke to us.

'Essentially, the play is about economic hardship and the effects of that, how the artist can’t survive and the fact that people will take risks to improve their lives. Lanciatore can’t survive as an artist, so he goes to a moneylender, and then decides to play poker with a subterranean gang in Rome…'

With the play centring on circus performers, Rawlife's choice of venue is inspired. When they arrive at the Belfast Circus School, they will already be surrounded with all the paraphernalia that goes with a circus, and the performance will play out in the ring itself.

'There will be an element of circus within the performance as well,' adds McSharry. 'It’s going to have a lovely mix of movements and characterisations. Patrick J O’Reilly has just come back from touring with the Jacques Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris, so he’s adding a wonderful physical element to it.'

Rawlife is known for producing shows in unusual venues, often focusing on challenging and sometimes controversial themes. It is no surprise, then, that at the heart of this play is a very clear message about the state of the arts and what it means to live the artistic life.

'Now, with all the cuts, it’s getting back to the time when artists weren’t appreciated,' McSharry observes. 'In ancient Rome, the prostitute and the actor were almost treated in the same way. It was considered a very dishonourable way to make a living. We’re also trying to show the parallel, too, that in the recent past, artists were almost elevated in stature, and how this is changing.'

Setting the play in medieval Italy, as opposed to the modern day, helps in hammering this truth home. 'If it’s too close to what you’re creating the metaphor about,' McSharry points out, 'then it won’t have the same impact.'

With 15 punchy scenes taking place over the course of 60 minutes, Lanciatore – The Juggling Man is a fast-paced and episodic play that builds to an exciting crescendo. Lacing together the universal and timeless themes of striving for a better life, the plight of the artist and just what people will risk to survive, it promises to be a real feast for the senses.

Designer Niall Rea, who has worked on almost all of Rawlife’s shows to date, has been challenged to create a flexible set that can keep up with the pace. It isn’t every play, after all, that takes place in a circus ring.

'We’ve been very lucky with the cast too,' adds McSharry. 'It’s a real ensemble piece, with people playing lots of different parts, and there is also a lot of mask work involved.'

As for writer, Paul Kennedy, he is delighted to be back working with Rawlife following on their production of his previous play, The Black North.  

'Lanciatore - The Juggling Man is an allegorical play about hard times and harder people,' he explains. 'There is a lot of theatricality, movement and physicality in it, and that's why I'm thrilled the material is in the capable hands of two great theatre minds in Martin and Patrick.

'I think Rawlife’s decision to make the performances site-specific in the circus school is very interesting, and I'm proud that it's a part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, which I've long held in high regard as one of the best arts festivals on this island.'

Lanciatore – The Juggling Man is at the Belfast Circus School from May 7-10 during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, and again from May 15-17.