An Imaginary Circus

Ben Maier invites the audience to play forests, flowers and fanciful girls as the Literary Lunchtimes series continues

Belfast-based English poet Ben Maier’s An Imaginary Circus originally premiered at the Belfast Book Festival in 2012, then travelled to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and here returns to Belfast and an enthusiastic audience at the Ulster Hall.

Perhaps magical is the best way to describe the impression this gangling virtuoso creates. Along a twisted road in which almost everything is not what it seems, there is pathos, humour, poetry and song. It is hardly a literary reading in the conventional sense. Maybe drama comes closest though, in a performance that is impossible to categorise and all the better for it.

The opening gambit seems straightforward enough: the hero’s father, a senior glass-cutter, loses his job at the glass factory in an early 20th century eastern European town. The son resolves to help him, and yet immediately establishes his lack of practicality. His father had secured him a start in the glass factory, but after a week in which he smashed 27 vases he was dismissed as a fool.

Watching his sister playing with marionettes, he dreams up the idea of organising a circus to raise funds to keep his father’s factory open. We are, of course, immediately struck by the unpracticality of this.

Nothing daunted, he prepares posters inviting locals to audition, nails one to a church door, another to a shop window (which smashes) and retreats to a derelict farm to await recruits. None come and he travels to a forest (played, incidentally, by the audience) and there he contemplates suicide but is saved by a voice like ‘a mouse coughing’. Others have turned up, but none can perform.

Back home and we are in quite another nightmarish scenario. The house heaves as though at sea, and our hero finds his father confronting his mother and shoots him in the knee. He runs through the town and is terrified by the sounds of the place. He finds sanctuary on a high hill outside the town, where there is a beautiful girl singing: ‘The first sound that ever gave me any pleasure.’

There is an older man there too, and it is not quite clear whether the tale of the courtship that follows is his, or that of our hero, or whether the girl being courted in the town is the same as the one on the hill. No matter, we are soon caught up in high farce so redolent of the agonies of failed adolescent male courtship.

Our protagonist can pluck up the courage to knock at the girl’s door, but when it is opened he is totally tongue-tied. He buys all the flowers in town and uses all his family’s money in the process. He hangs around there so often that the locals think he is a burglar. He brings a poem but forgets to deliver it. He is chased by her father.

Yet all comes well in the end. We are no longer in the Ulster Hall but in a vast tent in which the circus performance goes on to acclaim, and all the characters of the tale, real or imaginary, are assembled.

You couldn’t say that there is any obvious profound purpose in all of this, though if the term 'heart-warming' comes to mind it is perhaps because Maier's is a tale of the redemption of a shy, socially dysfunctional youth, even if the redemption is achieved in a dream world. There is a phrase in that fine song that Maier sings so well, ‘Come with me into the dream’.

Maier says no more than that he is intent on ‘making the audience feel like it’s a big party'. He is certainly a supreme enlister of audience participation, but could he do that so successfully if he hadn’t already achieved empathy for the story?

We start by nervously creating the sounds of the glass factory, but have soon enough enthusiastically transported ourselves to that eastern European town as we play a variety of instruments. We are the trees in the forest, and one audience member is even the tree from which the hero plans to hang himself. We are the wind on the high hill.

Here we are again equipped with flowers as the beautiful girl is courted, and soon enough members of the audience are recruited both as the beautiful girl and her angry father. More fun comes as Maier engages in a gentle critique of his performers. The show overruns, but no-one was scurrying back to work.

The next Literary Lunchtimes performance in the Ulster Hall is Poetry Picnic - Love Sucks on February 13, with live music from Ursula Burns, poems by Scott Jamison and new theatre from Nicholas Boyle.