There are those theatre productions whose charm lies in the comfort of us knowing what to expect – true love prevails after a familiar three-act arc, and the full cast assembles for a rousing sing-along number before the final curtain. Then there are those shows that take you on a journey to such unexpected places that you leave, blinking into the foyer lights, feeling as though you’ve discovered an entirely new part of yourself during those two hours in your seat.
Slava’s Snowshow is the latter kind – a wholly original piece of dramatic entertainment that has transcended language to engage the imagination of millions in more than 80 countries since its premier in 1993.
So what, exactly, is it? Well, part of the show’s allure is that it defies definition – at least in any broad-strokes genre terms. At its heart, it’s a surrealist clown show led by the eponymous Slava Polunin and his troupe of yellow and green fools. But this is a far cry from any of the three-ring buffoonery you may have experienced before. It’s entirely wordless, but set to a delicately crafted score that helps convey the language and emotion behind the actors’ every gesture. And while the thread of a story runs through the production, it also functions as something of a Rorschach test, with viewers adding their own layers of meaning to the spectacle playing out in front of them. The show is tactile too, with props and ‘snow’ engulfing the audience from time to time. At its most distilled essence, this theatre piece is an antidote to the boxed-in seriousness of our modern lives.
‘Slava’s Snowshow introduced a new and intriguing piece of theatre to this country in 2016,’ says Tony Feldman of Showtime Management, the production and promotion company responsible for bringing the snowy spectacular back to our shores. ‘Fascination grew rapidly, making this show so popular that it sold out, creating demand for its return. Showtime is proud to be bringing this unmissable theatrical feast back to South Africa.’
Russian-born Slava is often described as the world’s most illustrious clown. He’s president of the International Academy of Fools and, according to his official bio, the Ambassador of HC Andersen, and Envoy of the Dolphin Embassy. As if that isn’t whimsical enough, with his full Santa Claus beard, thick tufts of pure white hair and the twinkle in his eye, he looks like quite the storybook figure even when he is not in costume. A born performer, Slava first found success on stage imitating Charlie Chaplin for his school theatre. Later, he would hone these skills and delve ever further into the study of mime and physical theatre at the Institute of Culture in Leningrad.
His is a beautiful and underrated art form, with the ability to convey great universal human concepts through facial expression and distilled movement alone. ‘At the beginning of my career, it was like I was in a childhood phase of clowning,’ Slava told CNN’s Nick Glass. ‘My clowning was full of movement. I moved as if I were a child, when you were full of so much energy that you think you could jump to the sky. Today, my perception of clowning is that you should be able to move just one centimetre and make the audience react as if you moved an entire mountain. In order to learn how to move like a clown, I imitate the way madmen, drunkards and animals move. I do so because these movements are not bound by intellect.’
That release is perhaps why Slava’s Snowshow, while fairly esoteric, proves to be an almost universal hit with theatregoers. You are gently persuaded to leave your thinking mind, cynicism and to-do list at the door, and instead embrace a little wonder and magic. As Slava told Time Out Tel Aviv: ‘Since the very beginning, I have been creating shows for adults, primarily because I think that children are already okay. They are already happy and they know how to be happy. It’s the adults who are lost and need help with that.’