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Il Ritorno – The Long Journey Home

Il Ritorno’s premiere visual (Photo by Damien Bredberg).

What is Il Ritorno? It is a journey which, simply put, is a theatrical work that combines circus and opera – but it’s a lot less simple than that. With a show that features seven acrobats, two singers, and four musicians, Il Ritorno delivers a powerful, visceral, physical poem of absence and separation.

For those unfamiliar with this work, it is structured and inspired by the Monteverdi baroque opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, which is in-turn based on Homer’s Greek epic Odyseey. Within the legend, the King Ulisse of Ithica, thought to be dead, makes the long journey home after the Trojan War. He finds that a trio of suitors are pursuing his faithful queen, Penelope, relentlessly. Once he vanquishes them, he proves he has survived the war, and is reunited with her.

Acrobats Nathan Boyle and Brittannie Portelli stretch pre-show (Photo Chris Herzfeld).

Certainly this production draws upon this story as a structure of the original work and uses reimagined renditions of Monteverdi’s opera score, but symbolically it represents struggle, perseverance and triumph. As noted in his director’s note, the world is “seething with millions” of people wandering the globe, and is haunted by “numberless ghosts of those who died in the horrors of war and genocide”.

“I was after a much more obsessive, driven dramaturgy – a man is trying to get home, a woman is abandoned.” Yaron told The Guardian UK in 2016, just ahead of its first remount at The Barbican in London. “Bodies fly and grab. There are restrictions, things held, smashed against. I don’t want this to be a narrative of inevitability, an ineluctable movement towards a happy reunion – rather it is about people locked in extreme states, holding on, groping blindly towards home.”

You might have caught this production before – since its premiere in 2015, Il Ritorno has toured around the corners of the globe, and in April 2017 will play at Montreal’s prestigious TOHU. While the Circa acrobats are back in the room and warming up those muscles to take on the world again, take a retrospective look at the production’s highlights to date.

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The History of Il Ritorno

Nicole Faubert, Todd Kilby, Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Brittannie Portelli, Gerramy Marsden & Daniel O’Brien in rehearsal (Photo by Chris Herzfeld).

September 2015Il Ritorno premieres in Brisbane, Australia to a sold-out season at the Brisbane Powerhouse during the Brisbane Festival. The production is acclaimed by critics, calling the production ”a luminous new work” (The Australian) and “exquisite” (ArtsHub).

Later that month, the show received its international debut in Germany, at the Düsseldorf Festival.

January 2016 – Continuing to explore the DNA of the show, a bold, semi-new production of Il Ritorno is presented in London at The Barbican. Rebranded The Return, the show features additional acts, an expanded live orchestra, and new arrangements on Monteverdi’s score. Performed during the auspicious London Mime Festival, the production is received ecstatically, garnering praise including a five star review for its “powerful humanity” (The Guardian).

July 2016Il Ritorno receives a Helpmann Award, the highest honour in Australian theatre, in the category of Helpmann Award for Best Visual or Physical Theatre Production. A national tour of Australia is announced shortly after.

August 2016 – In a rendition that incorporates the new elements of The Return, Il Ritorno embarks on its national tour of the Australian East Coast. It debuts at Arts Centre Melbourne, and moves up to the Gold Coast Arts Centre, and then moves to NORPA in Lismore.

April 2017 – Circa will represent Australia at TOHU, the “Montréal circus Mecca” (TOHU) for the 7th time with Il Ritorno. It will then play in Toronto, before travelling further across Europe.

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From the Director

Director Yaron Lifschitz talks during rehearsal to acrobats (Photo by Chris Herzfeld).

Sometimes, as they say in the movies, ‘this one is personal’. That is how I feel about Il Ritorno.

It’s personal because the classics of antiquity have much to teach us. I came to them late, mainly through reading the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert whose writings changed my life. Once I heard the deep mythic music of antiquity I would never be free of its charge.

It’s personal because I love opera and have worked in it over the years. I have found its conservatism and poverty of imagination represent the worst sort of deadly theatre – atrophied, sclerotic and self-serving. Yet at its core, being in a room with a voice, communicating directly is deeply moving and necessary to our species.

It’s personal because Primo Levi’s account of returning from the innermost circle of hell that was Auschwitz only to land up in the vast expanse of the Russian steppe was tinged with the same crushing nostalgia, post-traumatic memory and cold hope that I heard beating at the heart of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. It is only through good fortune and the caprices of history that my family ended in the sun of Australia rather than the fires of that evil and it is beholden on us to tell of it.

It’s personal because for the past 17 years I have believed, naively, totally and to the embarrassment of many doubters that this genre of circus is a real artform. That it can express deep emotions and higher truths, that it can grapple with issues, exalt our spirits and touch our souls. Sadly, today it is constantly debased by the idea that it can only entertain. Like opera it is full of conventions and keepers of the ‘one true way’ who suffocate it by purporting to protect it.

The ensemble practise one final manoeuvre before the house goes live at Brisbane Powerhouse (Photo by Chris Herzfeld).

So I wanted to break it all. To rebuke off those who think opera is about sets and warbling, to annoy those who believe circus is an extension of the strip club or adolescent technicolor lycra fantasy. With Quincy Grant, our exceptional musical collaborator, we fashioned a world out of Monteverdi as a tale within a tale – surrounded by Mahler, folksong and Quincy’s own compositions. With our singers we asked them to sing across style with a multitude of bodies and stagings around, over and in the middle of them. And with our acrobats we, as always, challenged them to embrace the new, invest themselves and pursue what is vital and necessary.

The world today is seething with millions who wander the globe in search of home. It is haunted by the numberless ghosts of those who died in the horrors of war and genocide. It would be absurd to imagine that what we do, in a small room in Brisbane, can really make a practical difference. But I doggedly believe that when we challenge ourselves, when we make it personal, when we try communicate difficult, inexpressible things and when we share them, raw, vulnerable and without the safety net of convention then we have continued to help a little to keep culture alive – culture which may be our only defense.

– Yaron Lifschitz, September 2015

Find out where Il Ritorno will be touring to Canada in April – check out tour dates on shows near you on a touring page at circa.org.au/tour.

ll Ritorno is co-comissioned by Brisbane Festival, The Barbican, Les Nuits de Fourvière, Espace Jean Legendre, Théâtre de Compiègne – Scène nationale de l’Oise en prefiguration, Dusseldorf Festival and Les Théâtres de la ville de Luxembourg and was first presented at the Brisbane Festival.

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