Cirque Berserk celebrates 250 years of circus - Piet Hein Out

Cirque Berserk celebrates 250 years of circus

Posted on 1 July 2018

Thanks to the phenomenal success of its breathtaking blend of cirque-style artistry and daredevil stunts, Cirque Berserk is back for its fifth year in 2018, bringing its latest tour to the Belgrade Theatre 26-28 July.

But the show’s fifth anniversary isn’t the only cause for celebration: 2018 also marks the 250th anniversary of circus, commemorating a quarter of a millennium since West Midlands lad Philip Astley began his illustrious career as an entertainment impresario.

In honour of the occasion, organisations in Astley’s native Staffordshire and across the UK have been hosting a range of shows, talks and events, with Cirque Berserk’s latest outing forming jut one part of the year-long festivities. Ahead of the show’s arrival in Coventry, here’s a potted history of the colourful character credited as being the world’s very first circus ringmaster.

Philip Astley

Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1742, Philip Astley began his working life apprenticed to his cabinet-maker father, who instilled in him a lifelong passion for horses. Despite this shared interest, however, father and son didn’t always get on – it’s said that a short fuse is another thing Astley inherited from his dad. So it was that at the age of 17, the young Philip left home to enlist in the military.

Naturally, it was a cavalry regiment he joined (the 15th Light Dragoons), where his skill with horses quickly saw him put in charge of breaking them in for the other soldiers. By 1767, when he was finally discharged from service, “trick riding” displays were already a popular form of entertainment, providing a means of earning a living for many former cavalrymen. Astley followed in their footsteps – initially working for a successful ex-Sergeant named Balp, before setting up independently in 1768.

Ever enterprising, Astley managed to secure a prime location for his first riding school and performance space, purchasing a piece of land on a busy pathway between the Westminster and London Bridges. Known as the Ha’penny Hatch, the plot took its name from the fact that people were charged a halfpenny by the landowner to use the shortcut, paying the fee at a hatch or window cut into a small toll hut.

Coincidentally, the location of Astley’s Ha’penny Hatch was only relatively recently discovered by the founder of the Centre for Circus Culture Chris Barltrop – an actor and ringmaster currently providing promotional support for Cirque Berserk!

Astley's Amphitheatre

It was a fairly rudimentary affair – a roofless, circular enclosure where he taught riding in the mornings and performed on summer afternoons. Gibraltar, a white horse given to him as a parting gift by his military general, was used for riding displays, while “The Little Military Horse” was trained in a range of tricks, appearing to add and subtract numbers, feign death, fire a pistol and even allegedly read minds! Like other similar riding spaces, the Hatch was circular in shape, partly to afford audiences a better view of the action, but also to create a centrifugal force as the horses galloped around, making it easier for riders to stand up on their mounts.

Described as 6 feet tall and possessed of a “stentorian voice”, Astley cut an imposing figure, which combined with his ingenuity and sheer force of personality made him a natural showman. By the following year, his burgeoning business has already proved successful enough to enable him to purchase a second lot at the foot of Westminster Bridge, where a new, more permanent wooden structure kept audiences a little more sheltered from the elements. This Riding House Arena became familiarly known as “the circle” or “circus”.

But the real innovation was still to come, as Astley began to seek out other entertainments to diversify his offering. Like others in show business at the time, Astley was under pressure both to broaden his appeal as for as possible and to give customers reasons to return. After England became a constitutional monarchy in 1688, the spending power of the nobility had been curbed, meaning that performers could no longer rely on the support of a few wealthy aristocratic patrons as they had done in Shakespeare’s time. Thus, a new model of commercial theatre was born, in which ticket sale alone had to cover the cost of putting on shows.

Astley's Amphitheatre

In turn, this led to growing popularity for visual entertainments, in which displays of skill were more important than the lavish sets that had characterised courtly entertainments. With his eye on the ball, Astley began to recruit the jugglers, ropedancers, “posturers” (acrobats) and pantomime clowns who were increasingly populating the London stages to perform in big variety bills alongside his own equestrian displays. The first such show took place in 1770, and was every bit as big a hit as he had calculated.

As it transpired, his project came not a moment too soon for the performers. Around the same time as Astley was making a name for himself, the famous Shakespearean actor David Garrick was also becoming an increasingly prominent figure, playing a huge role in shaping Britain’s theatre culture for years to come. To his mind, seeing visual entertainers performing in proper theatres was somehow sacrilegious: “Nothing but downright starving would induce me to bring such a defilement and abomination to the house of William Shakespeare,” he said.

Consequently, outdoor circuses and later touring companies became a welcome refuge for the visual entertainers as they were banished from the theatre world. There’s a neat irony, then, to the fact that Cirque Berserk is celebrating this year’s big anniversary with a show created especially for indoor theatre spaces.

When not performing, Astley loved to travel, and soon began to establish a small empire of amphitheatres across the British Isles and even overseas in France, earning him the nickname Amphi-Philip. From 1778-9, he added a roof to his London theatre, enabling him to put on shows during the evenings and throughout the winter. When he finally retired from trick riding at the age of 38, he continued to feature in his shows as Equestrian Director – effectively inventing the role of ringmaster.

Cirque Berserk

Cirque Berserk runs at the Belgrade Theatre 26-28 July. Tickets are available to book now.

Further information on Philip Astley and the Circus 250 celebrations can be found at: