Given the UK Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis you might expect an article about the COVID-19 circus to be another piece hammering the test and trace system or the confusing messaging. But this is a piece about an actual circus installed on Blackheath to coincide with the October half term holiday. It is the latest in a series of posts which examine the ways this prestigious open space in South East London is used as an events venue during the pandemic.
Several academics have written about circuses, mainly from the perspective of the creative work and cultural industries involved. For example, geographers Norma Rantisi and Deborah Leslie have published research on networks and creativity in the circus business. This was my first circus experience since my grandparents took me to the one at Blackpool Tower in the 1980s. Circus has certainly changed a lot since then, with the influence of Cirque de Soleil obvious. No animals featured and most of the performances involved some combination of acrobatics and juggling. However, there were still some old school acts, including a knife thrower and an Argentinian gaucho, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1980s.
The circus was organised by Zippos and was installed on Lincoln Field, on the southern side of the A2 which cuts through Blackheath. Alongside the traditional big top, there were also series of mobile structures (providing toilets, refreshments etc), plus a large amount of caravans and support vehicles. These cluttered the open space but, during a dingy week in late October, the big top – which was illuminated attractively at night – added to the landscape rather than detracting from it.
Previous events on Blackheath in 2020 had been staged on nearby Circus Field, on the other side of the main road, but the circus was sanctioned by Lewisham Council (through their parks contractor Glendale), not Greenwich Council. Most of Blackheath is in the London Borough of Lewisham, although some parts are within the Royal Borough of Greenwich. This highlights the territorial complexity involved in managing many of London’s large public spaces. When they exist on the boundaries of London Boroughs, there is a perverse incentive for the respective councils to maximise revenues earned by hiring out their part of the space – especially as many of the people who might object live (and vote) in a neighbouring Borough.
The most notable aspect of the Zippos circus installed on Blackheath in October 2020 was that it happened at all. Cases of COVID19 are currently rising, and whilst London is currently less affected than some UK regions, the rate of infection is worryingly high. Since national lockdown measures were eased in the summer of 2020, there have been confusing contradictions regarding what events are permissible. For example, it is strange that football fans aren’t allowed to attend matches (outdoors) but are allowed to watch them at specially arranged screenings (indoors). During the Spring, there was a lot of concern about whether circus operators would be able to survive the COVID19 crisis. In July, circus performers delivered a letter to the Prime Minister calling for them to be included in the package of measures drawn up to sustain arts organisations, or to be allowed to resume performances. To justify the latter option, they argued that circuses were outdoor events, even though open air performances are rare. Eventually, like theatres, they were given permission to reopen, as long as their events conformed to a bewildering array of social distancing guidelines.
Experiencing circus within a ‘socially distanced big top’, was not that different than it would normally be. Audience members were asked to sanitise their hands before entering, and were required to wear masks, but if you were eating or drinking then you were entitled to take your mask off. So people chomping their way through a massive bucket of popcorn were effectively exempted from wearing a mask for the entire performance. Zippos masks were available to buy (£4.99) at the refreshments counter, proving that there is little in the era of late capitalism that can’t be commodified.
The audience was smaller and more spaced out than it would otherwise be, and one of the knock on effects was the notably somber atmosphere. Despite the performer’s best efforts to encourage clapping (instead of cheering), audience reactions to some spectacular performances were understandably muted. Nevertheless, the opening act, a song and dance routine performed to Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’, was surprisingly emotional – audience members and performers seemed visibly moved by the fact that public entertainment was back.
Only a few thousand people will attend Zippos Circus on Blackheath during its 10 day run, but hundreds of thousands will have driven, cycled, jogged, or walked past the big top. Ultimately, the most significant impact of the event was the visible communication that some normality is still possible, despite the difficult circumstances faced by citizens during the COVID-19 crisis. This reminds us that events staged in public spaces do not merely have physical, experiential consequences, they also function symbolically as spaces of representation.
Dr Andrew Smith is Reader in Tourism and Events at the University of Westminster. He is a project investigator on the ongoing HERA funded FESTSPACE Project.
This blog originally appeared on the FESTSPACE blog and is reposted here with kind permission.