Vanya Polunin is to clowning what Sir Donald Bradman was to cricket – a genius. Honing his highly creative endeavour over decades, he is unique and ubiquitous. When he created Snowshow in 1993 he wanted to go beyond the regulation clown show. Taking a cue from the surrealist painters he admired so much, combining comedy with poignancy, Polunin wasn’t looking to present a direct message to his audiences. It was all about our reaction to the surreal, the absurd, the slapstick and the silly.
Polunin was born in a small Russian town far from the big cities. All his childhood was spent in forests, fields and by a river and he lived in a world of fantasies. He liked to invent new things and make up stories. Through TV and movies, he fell in love with great clowns and mimes. At age 17 he went to Leningrad and joined a mime studio. He was influenced by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau.
Slava founded a theatre company in 1979, which took clowning out of the circus and onto the streets. His reputation grew and people travelled to learn his unique mix of alternative clowning and visual theatre.
Slava’s Snowshow sees the star, known as Asissai, dressed in a yellow onesie, oversized floppy red slippers, a large unruly mop of red hair and a droopy red nose. He appears alongside six fellow clowns who are wearing green coats, black stockings on greatly elongated feet and bedraggled caps with “wings”. They, too, have droopy red noses.
When we first set eyes upon Asissai, he is looking defeated, hobbling onto stage dragging a long rope containing a noose that he places around his neck. Looking to end it all, the rope also has a surprise in store.
Then through a series of comic routines, involving faux snow (oblong shaped confetti), smoke haze, bubbles and water, Slava et al proceed to entertain and engage young and old alike. It is all done with imagination, artistry, sound effects, diverse musical styles and mime. To that list you can add props such as balloons and balls of various shapes and sizes. Facial expressions play a large part in proceedings as Slava and company often compete for applause. They certainly know how to milk emotion – happy and sad – from their repertoire.
Among the acts, a bed transforms into a boat. Asissai forms an unmistakable attachment to a coat he has hung onto a hat stand. He takes a train and becomes the train, smoke billowing from his hat. His “death” from three arrows is hardly conventional. He has animated conversations on two fluffy phones, although I didn’t think that resonated as well as some of the other material. An example is when a tiny cobweb suddenly expands to entangle the audience. Brilliant.
And then there’s the world-famous snowstorm with glaringly lit background and confetti aplenty. It plays out to powerful and familiar musical accompaniment and engulfs the entire theatre.Finally, the child in all of us is reignited as thrillingly, the theatre is turned into a giant playground, with mammoth rubber balls and smaller balloons tossed into the audience.
With surprises aplenty, Slava’s Snowshow is a delight. While best appreciated by those who are seeing it for the first time, I have been fortunate to see it many times and, on each occasion, I am excited and captivated. Slava’s Snowshow is on a Playhouse, at Arts Centre Melbourne until 8th January, 2023. It then moves to QPAC, Brisbane from 11th to 15th January, and then the State Theatre in Sydney from 18th to 29th January.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Circa’s Carnival of the Animals (Arts Centre Melbourne) – circus review
- Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Regent Theatre) – theatre review
- Oklahoma! (The Production Co) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.