Russian clowns use humour and imagination to cope with crushing solitude.
First premiering in Russia in 1993, Slava’s Snow Show is a surreal tragicomedy that takes place in a wintry world straight out of a painting. Born from the mind of Russian clown Slava Polunin, the show follows a clown in yellow as he navigates the strangeness of the world he’s in, alongside the odd company of other clowns dressed identically in green, who seem to both play and thwart his efforts to make sense of it all.
While its premise of featuring Russian clowns may make it seem like a family-oriented romp, Slava’s Snow Show is anything but, immediately starting off with the yellow clown looping a noose around him (the dark implications of this are not lost on the young audience members behind us). Yet when he spots a green clown at the other end, mimicking his actions, the audience is caught by surprise, a little confused, but ultimately, finds a charm in the absurdity of the scene. What is initially meant to lead to death is prevented by this subversion of expectations, and the yellow clown lives to carry on.
It is with this attitude that the remainder of Slava’s Snow Show proceeds, where, despite being constantly confronted by his own immense loneliness and depression, the yellow clown valiantly presses on. There is rarely anything easy to interpret in the show; we see them steering a bed-turned-boat across an imaginary ocean, while a shark (a green clown with a fin strapped to their back) narrowly misses a chance to eat the yellow clown, who clambers aboard in the nick of time.
Elsewhere, the yellow clown appears to be mortally wounded by arrows, dramatically flailing about, before a green clown enters with a bow, the obvious perpetrator, and motions for us to applaud. Reality and performance seem to collide, and by applauding the perpetrator, we wonder if we are complicit in this act of murder, only for the yellow clown to reappear in the next scene, perfectly intact. Throughout, the green clowns continue to tease and play with the yellow clown, seemingly keeping him from the edge with every joke, to keep him from being alone.
While it may all seem to boil down to nonsense (and boredom, according to the children filling the theatre), if we adopt a kind of dream logic or accept the oddities as they are, then a throughline begins to emerge. There is a kind of tension between allowing one to give in to our darkness, and the forces of light and laughter holding it back. This is perhaps best seen when the yellow clown is precariously balancing on a chair about to tip backwards, reaching for a glass bottle on the table in front of him. In a Sisyphean parallel, the clown reaches and fails, screaming as he falls backwards, before the lights turn on and he’s caught in the exact same conundrum. Eventually, he learns to accept the absurdity of his predicament, and smiles as he falls back one last time, perhaps in glee.
The clowns’ antics aren’t just limited to the stage however, and oftentimes extend to the audience. The element of surprise is key here, as they break the fourth wall and leave no holds barred in their audience interactions, more audacious than anything else seen locally as they stuff handbags full of paper confetti, rain bottled water down as they traipse through the aisles, and even drag an audience member onstage to have her run away from manic clowns. There is no asking for permission, only a degree of chaos that treads a thin, absurd line between dream and nightmare.
With a name like Slava’s Snow Show, you would expect nothing less than a multitude of “snow” throughout, and while the white confetti isn’t exactly the same, there is more than enough of it strewn around the theatre and thrown at the audience to make it feel like you’re caught in a storm. Most of this is to the delight of the children, who pick up handfuls of it and toss it at each other, but for us, as adults, we see it as something far more symbolic instead, perhaps representing the immense, impossible to clear storm of pain that thrives within the yellow clown.
And so it is that laughter and practical jokes aside, towards the end of the performance, Slava’s Snow Show hits its emotional high point, as the yellow clown gives in and confronts his own solitude. Flitting between two oversized rotary phones, he adopts different voices as he speaks to himself in a nonsense language, perhaps recalling some aspect of his past as we go from casual banter to devastating hang up. He prepares to leave, and hanging up his coat, expertly puppets a single sleeve to make it come “alive”, enjoying a final warm embrace with himself, as if saying goodbye one last time.
In its final ambiguous scene, we are buffeted by a literal galestorm. Flooding the theatre with heavenly light, we are pelted by a massive flurry of wind and “snow”, rendered physically unable to open our eyes and mouths, to feel the visceral, all-encompassing power of the man-made blizzard. When it finally dies down, the yellow clown is nowhere to be seen, and we are left uncertain as to his fate. Massive colourful balls spring out, a distraction from the spectacle we’ve just experienced, but there remains a hollow, empty space inside us, as we hope our clown friend is ok.
Local children (and some adults) may not fully appreciate the abstract nature of Slava’s Snow Show, but that is precisely why it is all the more imperative that we learn to suspend our disbelief and accept the existence of the phantasmagorical as a means of processing complex emotions and experiences. Through the show, there is a kind of strange magic that keeps you wondering, and has you rooting for our yellow friend as he wanders through the winter of his soul. Not everything will make sense, but not everything has to, for you to appreciate the sheer power of imagination and slapstick as a coping mechanism.
Regardless of the maturity of the audience, regardless of the size of the theatre, if you allow yourself to fully immerse and buy into this world, you’ll find yourself wanting to reach out into this clown’s void of despair. Perhaps you may hazard a laugh while fighting back tears, as you tell yourself that all winters must eventually end, and allow your sorrows to disappear into the snow.
Slava’s Snow Show runs from 2nd to 13th November 2022 at the Sands Theatre. Tickets available from Marina Bay Sands