Aurélia Thierrée was already performing as a child with her younger brother James, cavorting around the stage of her parents’ Cirque Imaginaire in the 1970s. Her parents are Victoria Thiérrée Chaplin, daughter of the great Charles Chaplin, and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, who still perform and tour their magical and highly original circus-like performance, now called Le Cirque Invisible. Aurélia, and James, whose own performance Tabac Rouge was recently seen at Sadler’s Wells, grew up without any chance of a real childhood, performing and travelling around Europe in a camper van. Once a teenager, Aurélia broke away, went to school, and became a ‘normal person’. However, she was also soon studying dance and drama, acrobatics and juggling, working in New York and Berlin, in theatre, cabaret and film, as well as joining the group The Tiger Lillies in the UK. In 2001 she was back in the family fold and collaborated with Victoria to produce her first performance, Oratorio. This multi-faceted production, like its successor, Murmurs, was devised, designed, choreographed and directed by Victoria and was an immediate success world-wide.
Murmurs, bears all the hallmarks of Victoria Thierrée-Chaplin’s fantasy-rich imagination. The performance opens on a stage littered with packing cases where an obviously disturbed woman is attempting to pack up her belongings. She takes a hammer to a porcelain vase to make it fit into a box, and then carefully wraps the box in plastic, places it into a suitcase which she then also wraps in multiple sheets of plastic. She is constantly interrupted by two removal men wanting her to sign documents, while clouds of dust fall from an upper floor. Hobbling around in ridiculously high- heeled shoes, she attempts to gather up the boxes, falling into one, only to reappear on the other side of the stage in another. Finally she reaches for a sheet of bubble wrap which becomes longer and longer, metamorphosing into a huge monster which towers over her. Initially friendly, even affectionate, the monster then becomes threatening and intent on devouring her.
As a modern-day Alice in Wonderland, curious and innocent, Aurélia wanders through abandoned rooms and buildings. Decorative Italianate buildings fill the stage, offering walls she can climb up, windows she can leap through head first and an extraordinary assortment of humans, animals, and inanimate objects to encounter. Everything is magical and illusionary: walls disappear in a puff of smoke and strange grey-clad, masked people wander back and forth, moving furniture and re-arranging the set. In one frightening scene an inebriated puppet attempts to rape her on a table while in another a curious bird-like creature with a pair of bellows as a head tries to communicate with her. Everything she finds, a hat, a handbag, a cloak, is magically transformed into a creature or a monster, curious or troubling, while her split-second costume- changes turn her from innocent young girl, to circus acrobat, to a 1920’s vamp. In these days of high-tech wizardry onstage, it is reassuring to see that this kind of illusion can be brought about with the simplest of means. The village square is made of painted canvas, the rolling breakers of a stormy sea with strips of material and a monster is created from bubble-wrap, all recalling travelling players of an earlier age. This is, of course, deliberate and no doubt a complicated workload backstage involving scaffolding, pulleys and remote controls makes it all happen.
Aurélia, like so many of the Chaplin family, can do almost anything, even tap dance with tea cups on her feet. One of the best scenes is a tango she dances with the American dancer, Jaime Martinez, one of two men who collaborate with her onstage in Murmurs, but her dance training can be seen everywhere, with her beautifully stretched feet and legs, and the supple, feather-light body.
I originally saw the production during an early tour in 2012 and was won over by its originality and the seamless way one scene followed another. Two years and several trips around the world later, I found the scenes in danger of becoming ‘numbers’ and the ‘padding’ between these, no doubt for essential scene and costume changes, over-extended. It is, however, still a performance full of charm and a marvellous mix of Victoria’s unique imagination and Aurélia’s many skills.