Perth Festival: Raoul ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Perth Festival: Raoul

Under the curation of new artistic director Jonathan Holloway, the 2012 Perth Festival generated more energy than a windfarm in a tornado. My only real regret - and regret it I do - is that I missed out on Matthew Lutton's production of Richard Strauss's Elektra, of which the word of mouth was ecstatic. (You can read Cameron Woodhead's review here. As an aside on Lutton's direction, it's fair to say that I differed enormously in my response to his production of The Trial. Moreover, I recommend my ponderings on The Trial to new readers of this blog as a clear statement of my ideals as a critic). Elektra is rumoured to come here in 2014, so perhaps I haven't missed out entirely; but it's a long time to wait, and there's many a slip twixt cup and lip, etc. Cross your fingers, Melbourne.

James Thiérrée in Raoul.

What struck me generally about the theatre I saw was Holloway's inclination toward works with a clear, uncompromising aesthetic. Peter Brook's final show as artistic director of the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, A Magic Flute, showed the maestro of the essential theatrical gesture at his most lucid. The Lucinda Childs Dance Company's revival of Childs's groundbreaking minimalist work, Dance, was equally an unwavering, incomparably realised exploration. These were among my highlights, although perhaps the show which will stay with me most was the Teatro de los Sentidos's extraordinary immersive experience, Oráculos. This was the major attraction for me before I went: I had heard of this show, which is one of the iconic works of immersive theatre, but never thought I would be able to experience it.

The last show I saw was the final Perth performance of James Thiérrée's Raoul, of which many words have already been written. This is going on to the Adelaide Festival, so be alerted: Thiérrée is surely one of the best clowns working today, quite the equal of Jacques Tati, whom some of his work irresistibly recalls. Aside from his astonishing physical abilities, which include acrobatics, aerial tricks and some of the funniest body work I've seen, this is glorious visual theatre. Raoul is a particularly French combination of puppetry, clowning, dance, circus and visual theatre, and it makes utterly beguiling theatre.

Thiérrée introduces us to a world in which dualities are animated and smashed: divisions - between human and animal, self and other, inside and outside - appear, waver and vanish. There are two Raouls, each seeking the other, achieved by some clever theatrical doubling.
In the course of events, such as they are, Raoul is visited by some benign giant puppets (a catfish, a jellyfish and a very peculiar elephant) and he quarrels with his own body, his reflection, his house, his other self. At last, when all his protections have been destroyed, we find him alone in the darkness, a joyous explorer of a new, mysterious world.

The production itself is impeccable. The entire set, a kind of post-apocalyptic shipwreck, is ingeniously animated as if it's an extension of Thiérrée's body. It's a collection of junk - patched, billowing sails, an old gramophone player, a worn velvet curtain on a rail, a square of threadbare carpet - which takes on its own, unpredictable life. The clowning is punctuated by a precise and hilarious sound design.

The echoes of Beckett are strong. Raoul himself is like one of Beckett's tramps, his doppelganger is very like the doubles in Beckett's Ohio Impromptu, and at one point he even hides in a dustbin, appearing from underneath the lid like Nagg from Endgame. Contingency is all, and nothing in this desolately beautiful world is what it seems. And it's a total crowd-pleaser: the afternoon I saw it, a delirium of delighted gurgles from a small child in the stalls rose above the rest of the audience, sparking more laughter. It's that kind of show.

Raoul, designed, directed and performed by James Thiérrée. La Compagnie du Hanneton/Junebug, Perth Festival. Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide Festival, March 1-6.

Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival. 

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