John Smythe - TheatreView
It is well known that James Thiérée is the son of Jean Baptiste Thiérée and Victoria Chaplin, whose father was Charles – better known as Charlie – Chaplin. It's less well known that James is the great grandson of American playwright Eugene O'Niell. His stage shows could indeed be described as long days' journeys into dream worlds of extraordinary imagination.
This is Thiérrée's third visit to a New Zealand International Arts Festival: we had The Junebug Symphony in 2004 and Bright Abyss in 2006. In those shows Thiérée was joined on stage by other performers, whereas Raoul is almost a solo show.
I say 'almost' because insofar as you can pin down his shows, Raoul is about his relationships with himself, his place of abode and the world around him. He is trying to find himself and a way to be …
When we take our seats the stage is a mess of drunkenly hung, half-dropped, patched old canvass backdrops – the collapsing remnants of old-style theatre, perhaps – from which a drift of smoke rises. As the houselights lights go down an orange glow behind the drapes floats, strangely … Then suddenly the drapes fly into place at the back and sides of the stage, revealing a chaotic structure of black pipes: a sort of fortress or tower.
Thiérée arrives via the auditorium, clambers up on to the stage, a traveller returned, a castaway perhaps, roughly clad in dirty old clothes. When he finds his way into the structure – a process involving some wonderful acrobatics – he finds himself already sitting in an armchair in a rudimentary living room.
It's a very clever illusion that happens again when he's confronted with himself in a big circular mirror and suddenly there's two of him in the room, so he throws a rug over his other self and bashes it to death with a watering can. Interpret the psychological implications of that as you wish, not to mention the metaphysical and existential questions it raises.
At the curtain call Thiérée is joined by a young man – of similar height and build – who has also inhabited a large would-be friendly catfish-like creature that has visited from time to time, and a somewhat malevolent silverfish, and a wafting anemone, and the front or back of a magnificent – almost ghostly – elephant who arrives to revive Raoul towards the end of the show. Three other operatives also take a curtain call, so there is a team at work (not credited in the programme) to make the show happen, despite its seeming to be about a solitary man who may not even realise he is human, let alone what it is supposed to mean, to be so.
Thiérée's skills are listed as actor, trapeze artist, acrobat, clown, illusionist and violinist – and all are present in this show. Plus dancing: he dances fabulously, lots of isolation – almost locking and popping, hip-hop style – and he entrances us with some wonderfully lyrical hand movements.
It's all visual and physical. He does have a voice but no-one to talk to. He shouts at the universe from time to time and tries to get answers from the rattling, moaning, shape-shifting pipes … I think I'm right in asserting the only actual word he utters is "Raoul", usually as an angry or anguished cry.
In the programme there's an interview with Elena Greenfield where he says he avoids using words "because there needs to be a space where an audience can actually project what they are about – not just what the show is about." And he certainly does get our own analytical, interpretative, empathetic and creative juices flowing as he draws us into this weird and wonderful world.
Some of the best moments, that the audience laughs at most, are the most prosaic, like trying to get comfortable to read a book and trying find the best way to sit in a chair.
In clowning terms he's a man adrift, discovering, fearing, confronting, enjoying and variously coming to terms with a strange world he never quite feels right in – except at the end when he flies. He takes off into a whole new dimension.
Apart from the counter-weighted jib arm used to fly him about in the finale, Thiérée believes in making his shows from whatever he has to hand, rather than getting something built outside and brought in: "We will construct it with what we have, I will perform it and I will believe in it and then everyone will believe in it and that will be fine." And it is: absolutely fine.
Thiérée is not one to spoon-feed his audience with narrative or meaning. He develops his work intuitively but when Raoul is described as a "meditation on home and identity" he is prepared to accept that as fair enough. "But the whole show, it's not about home, it's not about houses," he adds, "it's about the soul and it's about what goes on in the brain and the infinite ways of overcoming whatever obstructs."
We only have to be human and sentient to engage with his character as he experiences his world, and I would guess most moments prod at a memory and provoke some kind of recognition for most of us.
Raoul is an exotic experience well worth sharing that, despite its physical impossibility in the 'real world', somehow feels familiar. Fantastic fun.