Art Interviews

Ahead of Circus 1903 at Southbank we caught up with Ringmaster David Williamson

Featuring acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, trapeze, high-wire performers and more, Circus 1903 returns to Southbank Centre for Christmas to recreate the thrills and daredevil entertainment of a turn-of-the-century circus. This year’s show will feature many of last year’s best loved acts including charming life sized elephants Peanut and Queenie created by puppeteers from War Horse and ringmaster David Williamson.

Q: Tell us about your career as a Ringmaster?

I’ve been a magician all my life, so when to producers of Circus 1903 invited me to take on the role of Ringmaster of their new theatrical Circus, I jumped at the chance. The producers were looking for a character that could narrate the story as well as provide a sense of fun and excitement and a little clowning and magic. Willy Whipsnade is basically a broadly drawn iconic Ringmaster. I based him on some of my favorites… W.C. Fields (he once played a Circus owner named Whipsnade), Frank Morgan as Professor Marvel (the slightly seedy but lovable Wizard Of Oz) and John Cleese as the hilarious Basil Fawlty. 

Q. Have you always wanted to ‘run away with the circus’?

Actually, yes. When I was a teenager a small family circus came to my town one summer. I loved the charm of it and became friendly with the family. When they saw that I was a magician, they invited me to join them. My mother, even though she was supportive of my magic, said no! She wanted me to finish school. So, look at me now, Mom. It took 40 years, but I made it!

Why is your role so integral to the show?

Because it’s a show about a traditional Circus coming to town in 1903, my character acts as narrator during the first act before the tent is raised and then becomes the Ringmaster in the second act when the audience is transported to underneath the Big Top. I’m the only cast member who speaks, so my role is also to introduce acts and, sometimes fill time when something goes wrong.  Even though this is a theatrical production, we are presenting actual circus acts with all of the inherent danger. And mistakes and spills can happen. I need to be prepared to keep the show moving forward no matter what.

What can audiences expect from Circus 1903?

I don’t like to give away too much, but I’ll say that audiences can expect to be magically transported to the year 1903, the Golden Age of Circus. With all of the traditional atmosphere and romantic memories of a gentler time.  They can expect to be awed by actual human being flying through the air, providing thrills no Marvel movie can match. They may not be prepared for the emotional response to our majestic elephants or our poetic aerialists. 
They can expect to laugh and cheer and leave the venue the same way all of our audiences do, Jubilant!

Circus 1903 is touring to three venues this year! Are you looking forward to taking Circus 1903 on tour?

Very much. This show deserves to be seen by as many families as possible. By taking the show on the road,
we honor the tradition of the traveling circus while bringing old fashioned entertainment to modern audiences
all over the UK. Nothing fills my heart like looking out over the footlights and seeing entire families laughing
and thrilling together.

Circus 1903 is on at the Southbank Centre from Thursday 19 December 2019 – Sunday 5 January 2020, 11am, 3pm, 7.30pm, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall it is recommended for Ages 3+ and tickets are from £29.50. More info and booking here.

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