Snow turning back
After well over a decade on the road, Slava’s Snowshow continues to pack ‘em in. Steve Cramer reckons this is about childishness, love and pain
One of the notable aspects of people’s reaction to the debut of Slava’s Snowshow at the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe was the enthusiastic inarticulacy with which the event was described. It was a show (already on the road for some years at the time) from which everyone seemed to pull a different scene, and, indeed, a different emotion to describe the scene. This was partly because there was no coherent linear narrative as such – the piece was unified by its performers, who ran through a series of episodes, inspiring emotions from despair to pure joy. But perhaps the main reason for the lack of coherence from otherwise seasoned observers was the fact that the work of Slava Polunin is, in the best possible sense, infantile. It had the effect of rendering into a kind of child-like state all who saw it.
Snowshow, after many years of touring, continues to delight audiences throughout the world, and its return to Glasgow will leave few seats for first time audiences, so great is the pull of the piece for returnees already familiar with the work. Its combination of clowning, mime and visual theatre has evolved from earlier incarnations – the point of an episodic structure is that new bits can constantly be slotted in – and might well change from night to night. Polunin claims that on any given night, 25-30% of what you see is improvised by the international company. All the same, the celebrated ‘snowstorm’ climax, as well as the endearing, unthreatening audience interaction, will remain in place.
What’s important about clowning of this quality is its capacity to create an equal innocence in the audience as that displayed on stage. For this to work, there must be just enough of the ‘real’ in the clown’s character for us to invest in, and just enough of the grotesque to lend us a detachment – some of the things that happen to clowns on stage can be painful, so it’s important we don’t believe the pain is real. But the situation must be real enough for us to relate to the dilemmas portrayed as occurring in the real world. Slava and his troupe’s genius is that they tread this astonishingly delicate balance between empathy and detachment with grace and deftness.
Psychoanalysts speak of love as an infantile emotion, and it is. Yet, perhaps the secret of Slava’s success is that the relationship he creates with his audience is more like an infatuation or a holiday romance than a full-blown love affair. Here, as clowns battle (as we all do) with both the inanimate and each other, each feeling arrives with a brief and fleeting intensity, before being supplanted by another emotion – in a moment, Snowshow can move one from bittersweet sentiment at the loneliness of a figure, to hilarity at his discomfiture. These aren’t the same emotions as are left after The Seagull or Antony and Cleopatra, for real love, like these plays, will leave you with a lifetime’s scarring about which you can always be articulate when the occasion arises. Instead, you’re likely to remember Snowshow with that warm fuzzy glow you can’t quite find the words to describe.
Slava’s Snowshow, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 11–Sat 15 Nov.