United Kingdom Tabac Rouge: Compagnie du Hanneton/Crying Out Loud, Sadler’s Wells, London, 25.03.2014 (JO’D)
Performers: James Thiérrée, Anna Calsina Forrellad, Noémie Ettlin, Namkyung Kim, Matina Kokolaki, Katell Le Bren, Piergiorgio Milano, Thi Mai Nguyen, Ioulia Plotknikova, Manuel Rodriguez
Direction, Set Design and Choreography: James Thiérrée
Costumes: Victoria Thiérrée
Sound: Thomas Delot
Lighting Manager: Bastien Corthieu
Although describing itself as a ‘choreodrama’, it is not the movement or the narrative of Tabac Rouge (which premiered in Switzerland in 2013) that makes, or leaves, the strongest impression. It is the set. An in-your-face jumble of lighting and scaffolding and wire at the start clears to reveal a towering structure of poles and rusty, mirrored glass, on wheels. While this suggests the post-apocalyptic, for the other props the aesthetic is a kind of burnished steampunk: a worn, Victorian armchair on girders with casters; fringed lampshades; a sewing machine on its treadle table that is pulled on and off by a female cyclist in shabby, nineteenth-century costume, wearing what looks like another lampshade over her head. ‘Everything is a character – the lights are alive,’ says Compagnie du Hanneton director, James Thiérrée, in the programme. The problem is that little in the dance or the drama of the piece matches its elaborate and inventive mise-en-scène.
The first dancers to appear are dusted with white powder on their heads, faces and shoulders. They resemble the people who walked, in their office clothes, away from the rubble of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The potentially serious tone is undercut by Thiérrée himself, who makes a slapstick entrance through a door in the central structure, with a large bunch of keys in his hand. Thiérrée, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, holds the key to everything that happens. The other dancers are a sort of male second in command and a chorus of women (and one man) who move, subserviently to begin with, around Thiérrée’s central figure. Their vital signs are shown, at one point, to depend on his. In the predominantly black, ‘post-everything’ world of the piece, recognizable language has been lost (the chorus simply emits sound). Sheets of paper on which something important may be written are partly scrunched by the women and held in the mouth to form surreal masks. Harmonious movement, too, no longer exists. This is made most clear by contortionist Katell Le Bren (a kind of Ariel, perhaps), who crosses the stage at speed in a crab back arch, and who manages to appear headless, really headless, inside her jacket.
Despite highlights such as these, the piece does not sustain interest over the one and a half hours it lasts. This may be due to its focus on the visual, rather than the dramatic. Or it may be due to its focus on Thiérrée, who is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson but the appeal of whose circus-influenced mime begins to wear thin. There is a moment, too, when the jerky movements of his second in command come close to poking fun at people whose movements are jerky due to degenerative disease. There was, at least, that cruelty to some of the laughter they produced. It is impossible not to admire the energy of the cast, and the risks they take as they dart underneath the central structure as it becomes a swinging platform. The chorus, in its later rebellion, mutates into unimaginable and only vaguely human form. There is, though, a rather sprawling uncertainty about the work (and Thiérrée, in the programme, talks about works evolving, even as they tour, about ‘not being afraid to get it wrong’). This was reflected in the audience’s not being sure if it had ended.