All tip and no iceberg: Sydney Festival’s Tabac Rouge

Twelve years ago I saw James Thierrée’s Junebug Symphony at the Sydney Festival and fell in love with his unique – and often surreal – mixture of movement, dance, clowning, bodily contortions, and elaborate set pieces and stage machinery. While I don’t remember much of the show today, I remember two huge shadow-puppet beasts emerging from the wings of the stage, two performers at their heads, engaged in a dreamlike ballet or battle. I saw his Au Revoir Parapluie in 2008, and so the promise of another show as the centrepiece of this year’s festival was hard to resist. Unfortunately though, in Tabac Rouge we have not just another James Thierrée show, but rather The James Thierrée Show.

Set against the cavernous backdrop of the Sydney Theatre, Tabac Rouge with performers draped over lighting bars rising and falling as though cast adrift on the open ocean. Lights flicker, smoke clears, and a gargantuan wall of mirrors slowly trundles downstage. Figures appear, clothed in dusty grey worker suits, drifting in and out of pools of decaying light, preparing the space. A man enters via a door in the mirrors; we are later led to believe he is in charge of this world, insomuch as one person is in charge of ‘a’ or ‘the’ world in a Thierrée piece. In Tabac Rouge, this ruler is likened to Lear or Prospero, a man with a near-total grip on everything, but as we soon discover – like Shakespeare’s figures – his grip is slipping and chaos seeps in through the cracks.
Each sequence seems to be its own little vignette, a self-contained moment or beat of dramatic action, but even to call it ‘dramatic’ seems to give it a weight and gravitas which it does not have. Ideas are introduced, toyed with, milked ad nauseam, but never really integrated, combined, or built upon to create a cohesive whole. Thierrée, the grandson of famous screen-clown Charlie Chaplin, descends into self-indulgent clowning, falling and twisting his body with rubbery ease, stealing the limelight from the other eight performers who all work tirelessly to support his singular vision. This would be reasonably acceptable if he was as good as his reputation, but in this his fifth show he seems to be relying upon his reputation to allow him to get away with more than we’d let others run with. Thierrée seems to be too consciously acting; that is, the playing or encounters in the scenarios feels forced, that there is no freedom or pureness of expression, no room for play. In a show like this, it is this very sense of play – the le jeu which Jacques Lecoq spent his artistic life trying to articulate – that should make it virtuosic, should make it sing, but it never quite gets there. And it’s a shame, because it could have been a fantastic show, if Thierrée had resisted the urge to never leave the stage; instead, he spends long sequences sitting downstage in a chair smoking a pipe, or scribbling away at a book in a torturously over-extended sequence, or ranting and storming about the stage in silent rage. It looks impressive, but what does it all mean; where is the feeling? It is all tip and no iceberg, to quote Paul Keating.
Amongst Thierrée’s grandiose set pieces are two gorgeous little moments, about halfway through the one-hundred minute duration. The first involves Thierrée’s ruler and a contortionist, Valérie Doucet, as they interact. Entering on her hands and feet like a crab, Doucet becomes a kind of Caliban figure (if we are to extend the Tempest analogy), scrabbling around the floor, fighting with her wayward feet, twisting her body this way and that into unimaginable poses, rightly earning the spotlight from Thierrée who just sits in his chair. The second moment emerges out of Thierrée’s ruler trying to walk; as he shuffles across the stage, he encounters a dancer on the stage – one of the production’s black-suited Ariel-figures – and, as he prods her, a stab of music plays. He tries again; music plays. He prods her again, and she begins to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster, the tempo of the music matching her spinning, like a record getting up to speed. As the music reaches the correct tempo and pitch, the dancer rises and begins a blissfully free moment, unadorned and free-spirited – pure aliveness – dancing across the stage. A man appears from the wings with a vacuum cleaner, and proceeds to slowly – ingeniously – crumple the moment. In this crumbling Versailles, as much an idea as a physical place, these two moments stand out from the rest because of their embodiment of le jeu, the exuberance of their playing, their sense of play, but I can’t really say the same for the rest of the show’s eighty-five minutes. Rouge has gone rogue.
As theatre critic Simon Murray writes, for Lecoq, “the pleasure of play [was] not some kind of self-indulgent tomfoolery where having a wonderful time is the key to creativity and effective acting.” He goes on to state that an awareness of the theatricality of play removes it from “mere pleasurable self-indulgence and provides it with context and purpose.” Furthermore, a lack of play “in its richest and most nuanced form, spectators will never be properly engaged in the theatrical event.” Lecoq himself then offers a final warning to actors – “if character becomes identical with personality, there is no play.” Thierrée might not be his crumbling ruler per se, but by (unintentionally) casting himself as the centre of the show, there are more resonances here that are brought to bear upon the stage than are perhaps desired, and it deprives the piece of the cohesive vitality and pureness of play which Lecoq talks about, which should suffuse all theatre no matter how light or dark it is. Not everything has to mean something, but in a show like Tabac Rouge – where theatrical and literary resonances abound, and where emotion and an audience’s empathy are key to the success of the piece – clarity of purpose within each moment and the piece as a whole are required. And I don’t think this show manages it.
As the lights dim for the final time and the curtain call is milked for a third time, the actor (dancer?) playing the ruler’s assistant introduces a new piece of comic business, messing with the sound and lights in silent (well-rehearsed) pantomime as the rest of the cast look on in bemusement, and it rings hollow and false, too conscious a display of cleverness to be taken seriously. But as the performers leave the stage for the final time amidst a red wash of light, manuscript pages flutter from the flies and Thierrée – stripped of his character – looks up and smiles, and there upon his face is the purest, most unfakeable expression of the entire evening. The simple honest joy of being alive. Alas, it is too little too late.

As you leave the theatre and begin to play sequences back in your head, you realise that the entire piece was superficial, concerned with the outward exterior brilliance of a virtuosic talent – which each performer in their own right displays, even if they are only allowed to do so for a brief moment – and it seems that, like the emperor, we were sold new (albeit invisible) clothes when the memories of the old ones would have suited us just fine.

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