Here are just a few of the random thoughts that ran through my mind during the course of James Thiérrée’s Tabac Rouge. Some ambled along in a nice leisurely OAP marathon pace that lasted the duration but others whistled through on roller skates so fast that they were instantly forgotten.
Amongst the “keepers” there was Professor Branestawm and his “incredible adventures” (the eponymous hero of a series of children’s books – popular in my youth, ie a long time ago – who was an absent-minded inventor of bizarre and unworkable contraptions); continuing the literary theme, but on a rather higher plane, Miss Havisham and her decaying post-jilted mansion were brought to mind specifically in terms of the rotting wedding banquet overseen by antique burnished and oxidised mirrors; then there was the headless ghost; plus a glimpse of Donald Sutherland and Kate Bush with their giant rain-making machine in the music video for Cloudbusting; frequent thoughts of Peter Greenaway’s films passed by, most notably Prospero’s Books; together with an ongoing image of Peter O’Toole’s fruitcake portrayal of a noble Lord in The Ruling Class; and yet other filmic leitmotifs came from the animated furniture in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and in the character of Caractacus Potts and his barmy mansion in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And so it went on. Less specific images of gothic circus and wild parties lingered but I never found myself absorbed in a narrative related to the work I was watching nor particularly conscious of any dance in general.
It takes Thiérrée a long time to make each new work. Tabac Rouge is his fourth production in a decade with Raoul its immediate predecessor back in 2009. He works with a close circle of collaborators brought together under the banner of Compagnie du Hanneton (his first major success came in 1998 with La Symphonie du Hanneton). Costumes are invariably designed by his mother, Victoria Thiérrée (née Chaplin, a major creative artist in her own right but also carrying the legacy of being Charlie Chaplin’s daughter).
The attention to fine detail in this elaborate visual spectacle indicates the significant level of careful thought that has been devoted to the creative look and feel of the production. The stage is dominated by a huge edifice, made largely out of “Miss Havisham’s” mirrors, which in due course is turned horizontal and swirled up high above the stage by a huge grappling hook and pulleys. Pipes and cables were scattered everywhere, even hanging down from the flies, as if this was indeed a decaying mansion housing an absent-minded inventor (thus accounting for the thoughts of Branestawm and Potts). Antique desks and chairs whirled around the stage as if living the life of Reilly in these messy, bohemian rooms (hence the imagery of Lumière, Cogsworth and Co from Beauty and the Beast). One piece of ambulant furniture – apparently made from meccano – points upwards at an angle of 45°, thus bringing to mind Kate and her papa’s Cloudbusting contraption.
And there you have a few isolated instances that more or less summarise the effect that Tabac Rouge had on this viewer since it is little more than a gothic-infused dream stringing together a random cabaret of scenes that have visual impact but lack any other cohesive force or narrative drive. Thiérrée himself plays the central character (a fusion of Branestawm, Potts or any other unkempt, self-absorbed character you might care to think of). There’s even Miss Havisham thrown in with the filthy, creased evening shirt and dust-ridden, once-dark trousers he wears, as if still clinging to the evening dress of that banquet, long ago.
Occasional moments of comedy bring some welcome light relief, such as when Thiérrée’s character tries to force his way through a doorway in the wall that won’t open sufficiently for him to pass through: after struggling for a while he walks around the wall and exits back through the doorway from the other side without difficulty before resuming the struggle to return through it to the room he has just left! Wearing a dusty, caramel-coloured curly wig, which looked as if cobwebs are entwined in his tousled hair, Thiérrée dominates proceedings like an unruly, drunken Lord of the Manor (hence O’Toole in The Ruling Class), surrounded by piles of books (the Prospero allusion, helped along subliminally by the fact that a teenaged Thiérrée played Ariel in the Greenaway film).
Somewhere in the blurb surrounding this British premiere was a reference to the fact that it contained more dance than Thiérrée’s earlier productions. Perhaps it did but it was still nowhere near enough to notice and the group of six female dancers seemed to be largely wasted. Only the plasticine-boned contortionist (Katell Le Brenn), who became the headless figure, wearing a large overcoat with her head held under her own arm, and a daredevil acrobat (Piergiorgio Milano) aided Thiérrée in making a lasting impression. It suggests that you can take the man out of the circus but it isn’t as easy to turn the circus into a “choreodrama”, as this was billed.
Such drama as there was came in bite-sized, easily forgettable chunks and the choreography was unassuming. This left the individual circus skills and the imagery in Thiérrée’s remarkable set design as the stand-out factors in an arty production that threw up many allusions and memories but fell short of being a good circus show (there are so many better ones out there). If the intention was, however, to provide thought-provoking dance theatre (rechristened as choreodrama) these episodic vignettes only inspired images that were borrowed from somewhere else. Like the thoughts running through my mind, Tabac Rouge drifted aimlessly, not knowing where it was headed, or why.