The Spiegelworld show "Empire" returned to Melbourne last week, and I was lucky enough to be invited to go along to opening night. It's so rare that I get to leave the house after dark these days. Going out is a real treat. I took my friend Tons along and we arrived on Crown Rooftop (yes, they pitched the Spiegeltent on a rooftop, it's an incredible location) just in time for a glass of champagne among the hammocks in a sheltered little garden, before the show started. People are always talking about how folks have become desensitised in this day and age. (Did I really just type "in this day and age"? What am I, 80?) We are told that computer games, the nightly news, the Internet and goodness knows what else have made us impervious to the true horrors of war, to the complex realities of love, to the fact that the kid who rode his bike into a duck pond on Funniest Home Videos actually hurt himself.
In my case, I can add to that list "amazing feats of strength and skill and cheating death." If you show me acrobatics on television, for example, I'll say "Wow" but I'm not really there, if you know what I mean.
You can't be desensitised inside the Spiegeltent. It is all just too close, too intimate. You can actually hear the artists hold their breath before a particularly difficult lift. You can see the sweat of effort trickling between their shoulder-blades. At one point, during which two acrobatic artists on roller-skates defied gravity in a terrifying spin, I whispered to Tons, "These seats may actually be a bit too good." Because if just one thing went wrong, the both of them could have hurtled into our laps at 100 kilometres an hour.
Empire calls itself "a love letter from New York City." Inspired by the vintage days of vaudeville, it is a no-holds-barred performance. Announcements are made before the start of the show to the effect of "Please do not use flash photography or you will kill our artists." And that pretty much sets the tone. The acrobats defy death and wonder and creativity and dreams. The singer belts out those notes. The audience has goose bumps. That drag-queen comedy duo did NOT just say that (they did). They did NOT just do that (they did). We are roaring with laughter one moment and biting our lips the next.
In the finale act a man slowly, painstakingly, balances a feather on a stick. Then he balances the feather and stick on another stick. And so on and so on, each stick getting bigger and bigger. The whole process takes forever. You'd think it would be boring, but the suspense is palpable, and the entire room is on the edge of its seat.
Desensitised? We are the opposite of desensitised. We are inside the performance, every one of us terrified, willing him not to drop that feather. The applause when he lifts that precariously-balanced, complex weave of sticks and single feather into the air is thunderous. It sounds crazy when I write it but you really had to be there.
Honestly, you did have to be there. If you haven't seen Empire yet, it runs in Melbourne until 30 March. If you get a chance to go along, take it! You'll love every one of the 90 minutes. (Just leave the kids at home, those jokes are not for the little ones). Tickets are on sale here.
In the interests of full disclosure, you should know I received the tickets to see Empire free of charge. But I was under no obligation to write kindly about it, or indeed to write about it at all. They didn't even ask me to. That I did willingly because this show was amazing. Thank you Spiegelworld!
Here's a sneak preview of the show. And remember, this is the Spiegeltent. So as close as those cameras appear to be, that's how close you'll be too. Yikes!
Update: I've just been told the show has been extended to 11 May 2014.