Theatre of disarray: Tabac Rouge at the 2015 Sydney Festival

James Thierry, a French circus director and performer, has a reputation for avoiding comparisons with his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin. It was hard to miss the comparison when he and his troupe were on stage at the Sydney Theatre during the curtain call, holding signs that read “Je suis Charlie.” He was, of course, referring to a different Charlie.

Last Thursday, the opening night of Tabac Rouge was met with standing applause at the Sydney Festival. The audience rose to show their support in an outburst of emotion for the victims who were killed in the terror attack on January 7 in Paris at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The collective expression of feelings was a surprise – the performance by Compagnie du Hanneton. At the same time, it could be described as nothing less than exceptional and was surprisingly devoid of sentiment and pathos.

Tabac Rouge opens in a disarray of lights blinking, scaffolding groaning, and electrical wiring gone wrong. The dusty older man, Thierree, appears on the stage like he’s stepped out of a sepia photo. He lights up a pipe and slumps in an enormous chair, then descends into an opium-inspired trance of hilarious and nightmare proportions.

The show, which marks the third time Compagnie du Hanneton has returned to Sydney, can be described as a “ghoulish choreodrama” about a prototypical creator tyrant who battles guilt, memory, and figments from his imagination. Intermittent illuminations transform into paranoid dreams. Dancers transform from sycophants into wild gamines and hurl themselves at him with anger. He is tortured and disabused.

The poetry of this period, which was influenced by the decadent lifestyles of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, is a perfect example of how chaos can be infused into a poem. Thierree’s Tabac Rouge is as perfectly orchestrated and ramshackle as its theatrical counterpart.

The show is composed of a series of sequences in vaudeville and vaudeville dances, tricks, and acrobatics that metamorphose one into another. The show is shattered by a wave of musical cues that are constantly changing. Props are transformed into characters. Dancers are transformed into objects. The scenery is brought to life.

Mirrors shimmer, dazzle, and rotate. Experiments with light and sound check the ever-moving panorama of furious performers who gesture, mime and contort into astounding revelations of absence and presence, light and shade, power and submission.

The narrative is fragmented, with audiences trying to make sense of the images, such as a junkyard desk or a shipping machine, before being interrupted by a strike of the match, signaling the next trip into the bright, burnt-out world of the older man.

It is not surprising that Swiss-born Thierree has a vivid imagination and exceptional talent, given his distinguished parents. He and his sister Aurelia, the sons of Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierry (who still make his costumes), grew up in France and abroad performing with their family’s innovative Cirque Invisible. As the great-grandson to playwright Eugene O’Neill, he was born with genius genes.

Thierry, who founded his own company in 2004, has received numerous awards for his innovative productions, such as Junebug Symphony or Au Revoir Parapluie. These include fusions of dance, circus acts, and music hall with physical theatre and installation, sound art, and almost any other medium he can think of. Tabac Rouge explores themes such as theatricality, aging, and control.

Some of the slapstick in this show is Chaplinesque. The clever sound-scaping of the show and the way Thierry, his gang, and their audience react to technology that is now outdated, like record players, typewriters, and sewing machines, are some of its most comical aspects.

The exaggerated interactions with technology remind me of an expressionist movie in Fast-forward. In his old age, the older man’s body also becomes alien – like an old clock that has gone wrong – with its madcap movements.

The show is one where the music and images are more important than the story. Thierree’s choreographic explorations, which can be best described as dance theater, brilliantly exploit an astonishing range of musical styles, from baroque opera to experimental instrumentation to techno-pop and fanfare.

Dancers are electrocuted or move like wind-up toys. Props and set combine steam-punk evocations in a shattered world of infinite suggestions. Sculptures and objets trouvés are a part of this broken world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *