Theatre review: Circus 1903, Sydney Opera House

Puppetry meets circus arts in a show that's fun for the whole family.

Fresh from London’s West End, the acclaimed Circus 1903 has loudly rolled into Sydney Opera House.

With an audience capacity of over 2500, the historic Concert Hall of our iconic national landmark seems an unconventional location for such a performance, and frankly after seeing the show, this still seems to be the case. With American actor David Williamson beginning the night by throwing bags of popcorn across the first few rows of the audience, it feels almost wrong to be buckling down for such a performance in a venue of such pedigree – which makes things all the more fun as the night goes on.

It would be pointless to sit here and write about a stand-out performer or “best bit” because every sequence of the show throws in a new element of circus trickery, such as Spain’s Elena Suárez Pariente on the death-defying hair hang, Germany’s David Schnabel on the acrobatic bicycle, and Ethiopia’s Mekdes Kebede as the contortionist. Each of these acts – and all of those not mentioned – showcase their years of training, their athleticism, and their unabashed bravery at bending their bodies to such impossible angles.

The set was simple and unobtrusive, creating a clear sense of space and a creative distinction between the washed-out colours of working-class 1903, and the multi-coloured carnival of the second act.

Read: Circus review: You & I, Airborne, Borderville Festival

Although it is easy to look at a death-defying act or classic circus stunt and call it brilliant, some may not consider the power of puppets in such a production. Created by the same award-winning team who brought us War Horse, we cannot neglect to mention the incredible puppetry on display. Two puppets – a large elephant, Queenie, and her son, Peanuts (which I initially heard as Peter, and believed it to be some kind of anachronistic meta-joke referencing Family Guy) – are prominently featured in Circus 1903. The puppeteers are truly remarkable, with the movement, characteristics, and personalities of the elephants finely-tuned, well-observed and gleefully entertaining. They are a delight to watch.

Although I don’t wish to downplay any other performers in the show, I have to say that I could have simply watched two hours of elephant puppets shuffling around the stage. Circus 1903 is fun for the whole family.

Circus 1903
Presented in association with Tim Lawson and The Works Entertainment
Tickets: $79 – $124
Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
21-29 December 2023

Also playing at Arts Centre Melbourne from 4-14 January 2024

Matthew Collins is a writer, director, and occasional actor whose works extends through literature, theatre, film, politics, gallery work, and critical writings. He is currently studying a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW. You can find him on Instagram @thematthewcollins