Cirque de Sauté
Acrobatics and gourmet dining enter the big tent.
In the deeply conservative Cotswolds, near Highgrove House, King Charles’ Country Estate, a hand-balancing drag queen contorts her body in front of an amazed, slightly stunned, audience. Waiters stand ready to deliver the evening’s second course, pumpkin-stuffed ravioli infused with squid ink. Normally, when one thinks about a circus, one can almost smell the hot dogs, peanuts, and cotton candy. Not here. Here, it smells of beef and toffee-apple pudding.
Fool’s Delight is a new take on circus-going. It’s the world’s first tented circus dinner show, ditching the elephant for a Cyr wheel and celeriac. It follows in the footsteps of the most-extraordinary culinary experiences since outré British chef Heston Blumenthal began serving grape rot and snail porridge in the late-90s.
Historically, the British tradition of circus-going is a bit less wholesome, less family-centric, than in the U.S. There’s a kind of bohemian allure, with an undercurrent of mysticism; one circus describes itself as a “hymn to homemade fun, excess and benign disruption.”
Fool’s Delight is celebrating that spirit this winter with Hag, inspired by the Slavic folktale of Baba Yaga that tells the story of a forest-dwelling wise-woman, a Gaian symbol of Nature, with pagan wisdom and healing powers. Throughout the Middle Ages, as women were targeted by Christians for witchcraft, the Baba Yaga figure was distorted into a villainous crone—a hag—and is now analogous with the witch in Hansel and Gretel and other Slavic-European folklore.
The show’s creator, Lil Rice, was also inspired by the book Women Who Run with the Wolves, which explores the wild-woman archetype through original global folktales—“before Disney fucked them all up,” she says. The idea here is to explore—and explode—feminine norms about strength and agility; it’s about women living outside societal expectations.
Rice is a singer and Cyr wheel artist, an acrobatic specialty whereby a performer spins and flips gyroscopically in an enormous aluminum ring. She co-founded Fool’s Delight in 2021 with chef Dave Cross and professional clown Sam Goodburn. For much of her life, Rice had been performing, and later producing, in Gifford’s, her aunt Nell Gifford’s traditional traveling circus (which still retains its dog and horse acts, as well as its human stars, but thankfully no exotic animals since 2020, after the practice was banned by British Parliament.) Gifford’s has toured towns across southwest England since 2000, helping raise the profile of circus in the UK.
But when the pandemic hit, Giffords had a serious problem. Pandemic restrictions shut down entertainment venues. Traditional circus, which involves a touring troupe of acrobats, musicians, riggers, animals, and a big top tent all moving via a train of wooden traveler-style wagons, was very clearly an entertainment extravaganza. Circus workers were about to lose their livelihood.
Rice faced a stark choice: she could stand by and watch her highly trained and talented colleagues scatter and get work as clerks and baristas, or…what if the circus could rebrand itself as a venue that was not being closed? What if it could double as a restaurant?
Her gambit worked. “People loved the concept of combining circus and fine dining,” she says. “There are so many amazing circus and tented shows, but there weren’t any dinner shows.”
At the same time, Rice had created a new set of challenges for herself. Fool’s Delight “is not as easy as traditional circus shows,” she explains. The room for error is compounded by serving a four-course meal for a 100-strong audience under a big top.
As one stage act closes, the waiters stream out of the wings and deliver the food. Then, after a 20-minute interval, plates are cleared and the next act begins onstage. “We’re live every second. If timing in the kitchen goes wrong, the show gets delayed and vice versa. We have to be in perfect harmony to make it work.”
That’s not to say it’s worked every time. The dress rehearsal for Hag was a disaster. “For the timing to work, a set of calls are passed from the stage manager through to the kitchen at precise moments during the show. There’s one cue to plate up the food, another to have it ready and waiting to be served,” Rice explains. “We had a new stage manager who forgot to give the first cue. So the first circus act was coming to an end and the first course was supposed to be ready to be brought out. The problem was the kitchen had no idea—it wasn’t prepared or plated, let alone ready to be served to the audience.”
The experience jolted them to realize that timing was everything. They have since turned the art of combined circus and dining into a science: Tumble, juggle, dive from rafters, spin, be thrilled, be scared…then eat.
The haute-cuisine only adds to the delicious feeling of decadence. “It’s important that there’s a hedonistic side to Fool’s Delight,” Rice says. “One of my proudest moments was a daytime show in the Cotswolds to a room full of white, middle-class Englishmen who didn’t know where to look when a drag queen came onstage in a thong and bra and started hand balancing. By the end they all loved it.” As one Twitter fan in Oxfordshire enthused in October, when the UK was in the thick of the Liz Truss debacle: “Escaped the insane circus of politics for a real one run by competents – Fool’s Delight Circus in Bampton, Oxfordshire. Pure autumnal joy.”
Many have applauded Fool’s Delight for daring to explore transgressive topics like gender-bending in such a conservative area of the UK. After Hag, Rice was contacted on Instagram “by a local person thanking us for our show. They were queer and had lived locally all their lives and never seen queerness represented on stage in Oxfordshire. What a privilege! To make people feel seen.”
All images courtesy of Fool’s Delight.