Let me entertain you
Don’t worry,’ the man, an Australian called the Space Cowboy, says to the crowds watching him. ‘I’ve everything under control. I’m a professional . . . idiot’‘DON’T WORRY,” says the heavily tattooed man astride a three-metre-high unicycle, a man who is about to juggle three dangerous-looking implements, including an axe, while blindfolded. “Don’t worry,” the man, an Australian called the Space Cowboy, says to the crowds watching him on a sun-soaked Merrion Square, in Dublin. “I’ve everything under control. I’m a professional . . . idiot.”
The square and the streets around it have been packed with professional idiots over the weekend for the annual Street Performance World Championship. There are snake charmers and magicians, fire eaters and sword swallowers; there are people, like the Space Cowboy, who consider it a perfectly fine idea to juggle with a chainsaw. “It’s not,” he explains, “as easy as it looks.”
When, after a dramatic build-up, he finally gets around to juggling his chainsaw, while balancing on that three-metre-high unicycle, the spectacle is best summed up by the reaction of a teenage girl in a checked shirt sitting in the audience. As the chainsaw is propelled from the Space Cowboy’s hand into the air and back into his hand, she jumps up from the grass, cheering and punching the air. No surprise, then, that, for the third time in the history of the festival, the audience have voted him World Street Performance Champion, a hat-trick for a man who also happens to do a neat line in actual hat tricks.
Part of the joy of the street-performance festival is watching and eavesdropping on the audience as they watch and enjoy the performances. When Jitterbug Jackson is strutting his bizarre stuff near the helter-skelter, some in the crowd are doubled over with laughter, grinning madly, leaning on each for support: an entertaining display in its own right. As Goliath, the World’s Smallest Strongman, attempts to bend an iron bar with his head, two five-year-old boys from Shankill in Dublin, named Mark and Izaak, have a conversation.
Mark: “Oh. My. God.”
Izaak: “How does he do that?”
Mark: “Look! He is doing it with his neck now.”
Izaak: “He is amazing.”
Mark: “Oh. My. God.”
There are plenty of laughs to be had amid all the gasping, with a lot of the cruder attempts at humour designed to amuse adults while soaring over the heads of children. The Space Cowboy, before swallowing his sword, quips that “it’s the last few inches that really make your eyes water”; the Mighty Gareth, with his red Mohawk and bovver boots, cracks his whip and says, “Don’t worry, kids: it’s just a normal whip like Mummy and Daddy have at home.”
He also twists a balloon into the shape of a sperm and asks a seven-year-old boy what he thinks it looks like. “A mouse,” says the boy. “You won’t believe me, but one day you are going to have millions of these. Just ask your mummy and daddy,” the Mighty Gareth replies. The seven-year-old looks confused. And if it is slightly uncomfortable, too, then that is par for the course at these performances, which are designed to stun, not soothe, the audience.
When festivalgoers have had their fill of dodgy jokes, death-defying acts and astonishing juggling, more genteel pursuits are on offer, too, such as the old-fashioned wooden games dotted around the FestiJeux area of the park. Cousins Elizabeth Dorr and Mark McCafferty, who are nine and 10, play a giant game of Mastermind, which a poster explains was invented by a Romanian telecommunications engineer living in Israel in the 1970s.
Mark says he likes the festival because “everyone jokes around and you don’t know what they’ll do next”. Earlier, Elizabeth was picked out of the crowd by an act called the Unknown Stuntmen. “They wanted to jump over my head. I was really nervous, but they did it.”
Nearby, 15-year-old twins Iarla and Finn McKeon play magnetic hockey, a game that might as well be computer based, so absorbed are they in moving the tiny wooden figures around the board.
Organisers have gone to impressive lengths to create a grin-inducing atmosphere for the 165,000 people they estimate have come to the Dublin festival this weekend. Mock stop signs around the park order people to smile, there’s a giant inflatable flower garden and, as happened last year, there is a world record attempt. In 2010 it was to get the most people on spacehoppers in one place; this time it is about gathering the biggest bunch of Wallys together: lots of festivalgoers are wearing red-and-white Where’s Wally? costumes and round black spectacles in honour of the comic-book character, in preparation for the record attempt. Early on Saturday evening a record-breaking 3,657 of them gather in the rain – and on Sunday evening the festival breaks its own record when 3,872 Wallys get together.
The street-performance festival, which also ran in Cork and Portlaoise last weekend, is free, a fact that everyone mentions when asked about its appeal. That’s not to say money doesn’t change hands. The methods of extracting cash from the audience at the end of each show vary, but the one thing the performers have in common is that when it comes to asking for money they are about as subtle as sledgehammers. They make their livings from their acts, and their income depends on how convincing they are in this department.
The Mighty Gareth tells children, “If Mum and Dad don’t give you money to give to me, it means they don’t really love you,” and is swamped by people wanting to throw money in his hat. Goliath tells children that, being a dwarf, he has good connections with Santa’s toymaking elves, and if their parents don’t give him money “Santa won’t be coming this year”. It proves an incredibly effective line in money-getting patter.
The charming Lyndsay Benner, juggler-seductress extraordinaire and the only woman performing at the festival, makes an impassioned plea for cash that sums up the allure of an event that has left the jaws of punters sore from smiling.
“Street performance is the most honest form of entertainment in the world,” she says, urging anyone who had looked up her skirt as she juggled fire while being held aloft by two men from the audience to hand over more cash for the privilege.
“It’s live theatre for everyone, no matter what your budget. If you are going through a rough time and can’t afford anything, this show is my gift to you: just pay me with a thank you and a smile.”
Kilrush, Co Clare
On the Mighty Gareth
“He looked funny, and his tricks were very cool. I really liked the bit where he made a bow and arrow from a balloon and pretended to kill a little kid. He used a chainsaw in the show, a real one, and that was pretty cool too.”
On Goliath, the World’s Smallest Strongman
“My favourite bit was probably when he picked up a woman at the very end of his act. He was very small, and he didn’t look that strong, so it was incredible the things he could do. It takes a lot of guts getting up and performing like that. I bring my family to the festival every year. It’s the best event in Dublin.”
Carbury, Co Kildare
On Keith Wise
“He put a nail inside a balloon without bursting it, and that was brilliant: I really loved that bit. Then he did this thing where he was a ventriloquist and made a man from the crowd be his dummy; that was very funny. He was very good with the children he picked out of the audience.”
On the Space Cowboy
“I was picked out of the crowd to help him with the act. I had to throw an axe and other blades up to him when he was on his unicycle. I was a bit nervous about that. He did things you couldn’t believe: he put a hook into his nose and it came out of his mouth, and he juggled with a chainsaw.”
Dunboyne, Co Meath
On Jitterbug Jackson
I am a volunteer at the championships, so I got to see a lot of the acts a few times, and Jitterbug definitely stood out for me. He is whimsical, and he had a sort of Pied Piper effect on the children. His act was very funny but with dangerous elements, a bit like Jim Carrey meets Evel Knievel. It was also good to see an Irish act among all the international ones.