Thomas Monckton is breathlessly funny on stage – an expert in physical comedy. But don’t call him a clown (at least, not on these shores). “I’ve always struggled with that term,” he says over a coffee in a snatched moment during the madness of the Fringe. “It’s the aesthetic of it. And it’s such a broad term, it’s just impossible for people to have an accurate idea of what you do.”
And knee-jerk associations of buttons, silly costumes and squishy noses don’t come close to Monckton’s style. In his latest one-person show, Only Bones, currently playing at Summerhall, he transforms every part of his body into a sketch. His feet squabble with each other, his hands fight over lipstick and he can’t keep his head still, as it slides between his shoulders.
The show also has a hefty dose of audience interaction, which can lead to unexpected consequences. “There was one audience member who just lost it completely,” says Monckton, of a recent performance. “She got the giggles and the room I’m in is so echoey, I just had to stop for two minutes until she calmed down. It totally made me crack up as well.”
Only Bones evolved out of Monckton’s highly acclaimed solo circus-based piece, The Pianist, which launched the New Zealand-born (now Finland-based) performer into the consciousness of British audiences at the 2014 Fringe. Playing at Assembly Roxy this year, The Pianist involves the spectacular collapse of a grand piano.
“So it’s not the most portable of shows,” Monckton says with a laugh. “I thought it would be nice to make something really basic, stripped back, with a bare-bones aesthetic. For some reason, it felt more relevant to create a show like that now.” The metaphor became literal, and Monckton’s bodily distortions are both hilarious and, at times, difficult to watch.
Monckton freely concedes this. “My stuff has always more or less been rooted in comedy,” he says, “and the body is disgustingly comical. And when you hone in on that, you can find the finer details of that disgusting comedy in these smaller parts.” That element of the grotesque appeals. “Not so much that you’re grossed out, but it’s definitely a more profound experience if you destabilise people.”
With circus training in his background—the skills of which he now uses to tell his largely wordless stage stories—it’s the bodily-ness of the form that still inspires Monckton. “That will always be relevant to us,” he believes, “however far we get into the digital age.” At the start, though, as an eight-year-old living in Patea, South Taranaki, what hooked Monckton into circus was juggling rather than philosophical musing.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is amazing’,” he recalls. “Because where I grew up, if you wanted to be physical, you played rugby. No other option. And I didn’t have the build.” Meeting him now, his wiry frame swamped by a black jumper, it’s hard to disagree that this might not have been the best sport for him. “I played it a couple of times and got annihilated,” he says, smiling. “That led to juggling. I think I was the only person who even knew that circus existed in my home town.”
As well as juggling, he threw himself into other circus skills, including teaching himself to unicycle along the way. And after that, there was never really any doubt about his career: as soon as he was able, Monckton joined New Zealand’s circus school, CircoArts, where he trained for two years. However, he soon learned that he’d have to move further afield, if he wanted to keep developing his work.
An amused Monckton can pinpoint the precise moment he realised he had exhausted the possibilities New Zealand had to offer in terms of training, post-graduation: he was the back-end of a zebra costume, crossing a zebra crossing. “I just remember thinking that there had to be more to it than that.”
So Monckton packed his bags and relocated to Paris, studying for two years at famed physical theatre school, Lecoq – and graduating as only the 13th New Zealander in 50 years to complete his course. He’s now based in Helsinki, but his love for France, for its long history of physical comedy, is undiminished. “It’s the only place where I could introduce myself as a clown and people would go, ‘Ah, OK’.”
Only Bones is produced by the Finland-based Kallo Collective, which Monckton helped to set up. He regularly works in collaboration on his work. The Pianist, for example, came about after co-producers Circo Aero saw his production, Moving Stationery, for Kallo. Collaborating in a way that has allowed him to develop his own style began “pretty much after Lecoq”, he says, after working with theatre companies.
And in the time he’s been performing, Monckton has witnessed “a huge surge in physical theatre and contemporary circus and physical comedy.” He’s excited by the “huge new wave” of work coming through, and feels that “the international market has been like, ‘Oh, this is great – totally accessible, affordable and good quality stuff'.”
As a consequence, he continues, “there are people starting out who are really interested in creating new work.” And this surge of interest has made “the grassroots stuff more competitive, with people producing better and better work.”
Evolution is the name of the game for Monckton, who’s relishing the frontier feel of exploring new artistic ground. From challenging gender conventions to re-claiming clowning, “it’s the benefit of being on the first wave. You don’t have those expectations, so you can do what you want.”
And Monckton applies that attitude equally to his existing work. “I’d go mental if I couldn’t change it,” he says emphatically. “The driving force for Only Bones was to make a show that wasn’t fully formed and then develop it. So it’s always changing, always developing.”