Interview: Raoul is all about imagination

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Tom Hunt - Dominion Post

In the anxious moments before going on stage, James Thierree wonders why he didn't get a regular job.

But theatre is in his blood. Charlie Chaplin was his grandfather. His own 1 1/2-year-old son is already showing early toddlings towards theatre.

His mother Victoria Chaplin and father Jean Baptiste Thierree are renowned French circus performers, who performed the show Le Cerele Invisible in the 1998 festival.

Thierree began his career at age 4 as a prop in their magic shows.

"I have sketchy images of being on stage and of the first impressions of the spotlight in my face and the audience, but I was really used as a prop, you know, it's not like I was performing at all. I was put on stage like a rabbit or duck would be – or a magic dove."

Another was he and his sister as walking suitcases.

"They would cut little legs in the suitcase and we would have our little legs protruding out, then we would just be walking like this. It was that kind of thing.

"My first memories, it was more being trapped in some box, in some magic box waiting to appear rather than featuring some amazing acrobatic act."

In Raoul, 37-year-old Thierree's latest show, opening at St James Theatre tonight, amazing acrobatics and contortions are central to the act.

Thierree has graduated from a prop to the main event, carrying the entire 80-minute show on his shoulders.

As it did when he was young, the thrill and sometimes horror of going on stage hasn't left.

"Now it's different kinds of nervosity. With Raoul it's not really nervousness, it's just looking at the landscape in front of me and knowing for[80] minutes it's going to be hell ...

"Sometimes I'm overwhelmed a couple of minutes before entering the stage.

"I'm just thinking, `oh, is that really what I am going to do? Am I really going to crash my head into a metal tower? Am I really going to fly and fight against myself?' Because I know, I know it's radical journey, a stage journey, and I wanted the show to be a kind of fireworks of theatre."

Six years back when Thierree brought a previous show – Junebug Symphony – to the Wellington festival he told The Dominion Post he was getting too old to carry on performing.

"I want to direct shows where I'm not performing. I still have this urge and this pleasure to be on stage, but I'm 31. Physically I feel like it's the best moment to do one more show."


But this week in Wellington he laughed the comment off: "I'm not into that syndrome anymore ... I know I will be in this business until my last breath."

He has though made some concessions to his advancing years, ramping up the theatrical and character elements, mixed with sheer physical prowess.

"That connects to people a lot. You don't have to just impress them, you don't have to perform stunts that defy absolute gravity, it's all about the imagination.

"It's all about the connecting with the audience."

In Raoul, his character is a lonely hermit dealing with his demons, but Thierree is cagey about how much is autobiographical.

"In a way it's nobody's business if it's personal," he laughs.

"And it's both. Of course it's very personal. You have got to be personal on stage and the way I work is it's always personal. However, it's all metaphorical."

And another personal detail – his famous grandfather – elicits and equally-cagey, if light-hearted, response.

"Oh that thing, that thing, that aspect. Now that you talk to me about it I do remember. He is my grandfather."

Thierree does acknowledge his early career was overshadowed by Chaplin, but says that is now largely in the past.

"Whenever the subject of my grandfather comes up, I don't know what to say really because it is really in the eye of the people who want to make the connection. But I am not obsessed by it."

It is though another relative, his young son, who has impacted – if not the demands of each show – the length of time he spends on the road each year.

"I couldn't be separated from him too long."

Whether there is another Thierree/Chaplin performer in the midst remains in the hands of a young boy still too young to decide.

"He will do whatever the hell he wants. But I will open the door to the theatre stage and he has already – his playground has been a lot of different theatres."

The Details

Raoul, St James Theatre, tonight, 8pm and March 16 to 18, 8pm

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