James Thierrée’s first memories are of being on stage, of the stage lights and of a world of fantasy. He decided then that one day he would create his own ‘playground’ and recreate his own childish world on stage. He wanted to fly, and he does so on stage; he dreamt of magical scenery and other-worldly scenic effects, and he has created these over and over again. James was just four years old when, together with his older sister, Aurélia, he became a performer in his parents’ ‘Cirque Imaginaire’ in the 1970’s, the family travelling in a camper-van around Europe, amazing and delighting audiences wherever they went. His parents are Victoria Chaplin-Thierrée (daughter of the great Charles Chaplin) and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, both multi-talented artists and performers, and they were certainly responsible for passing on to their son both the acrobatic and virtuoso technique he has now mastered as well as the passion for the theatre. James Thierrée went on to study theatre and circus arts at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, in schools in Paris and in the United States. At seventeen years of age he won acclaim as Ariel in Peter Greenaway’s remarkable film Prospero’s Books and he went on to make several more films as well as appearing in stage productions all over Europe.
Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thierrée founded his own theatre company, La Compagnie de Hanneton, in 1998 and directed his first production, La Symphonie du Hanneton. The production was chosen as one of the ten most important theatre productions of the decade by Le Figaro and awarded four ‘Molières’ (the French equivalent of the Oscars) as did the later production, Aurevoir Parapluie. His fourth production in 2009, was Raoul, which he revived to perform in Paris last summer and which has now received its final performance at the brand new Théatre Anthéa in Antibes.
On entering the auditorium the audience finds the stage littered with ragged, patched white stage cloths, hung in a disorderly manner with older, stained and grubby ones visible behind. As the auditorium and the stage lights dim a man races through the auditorium, a miner’s lamp on his forehand; he is dressed in a dusty shirt and trousers, and with a lot of stamping and shouting he jumps up onto the stage. A huge crash brings the stage curtains tumbling to the floor and these are then flooded with a glowing orange light as they are raised again to expose a tower-like building made of metal pipes. The man, apparently some sort of traveller with a back-pack and heavy boots, attacks the tower, bringing the pipes clattering down, only to reveal another man, his double, seated in a small room, reading. This beginning, supremely theatrical, brought the mainly young audience, already excited and expectant, to shout and clap enthusiastically.
The resulting encounter between the two men turns into a violent fight and the following scenes are very much left to the spectator to make sense of. It is however, mainly a dance work and Thierrée is an extraordinarily talented dancer as well as an acrobat, a juggler, a violinist and still more. The choreography, like the production and the scenery design, are his own, Victoria Chaplin is responsible for the costumes and for the creation and the making of the extraordinary animals which fulfill an important part in the production. Thierrée does not allow promoters to publicise the fact that he is Chaplin’s grandson, but the legacy is often clear to see – especially when he dances; the walks, the posture and his timing all seem familiar.
Once the fight is over, Thierrée is left on his own in the tower- he describes the character as a sort of king who has retreated from the world- and the performance continues as a series of short scenes, many involving the piles of cluttered items surrounding him which provide an endless supply of props. He plays with an old wind-up record player, which leads him to dance; he uses techniques from contemporary dance, hip-hop, body-popping and his extremely athletic, supple body seems to master them all. In other scenes he battles to put on an oversized overcoat, he finds a long baton to twirl and juggle with and a picture frame to squeeze his head through. He is also visited by a monster fish, slithering along the floor and flapping its gills, a giant bird, made of sticks and bits of material and a lobster with metallic scales, jingling and shaking while flashing a light from his tail. And just when one thinks fantasy can go no further, a huge white elephant lumbers out of the wings, made entirely from scraps of white material. An especially successful scene is one with Thierrée as a chimpanzee finding and playing around with a violin, which, of course, he soon masters and tosses off a piece by Bach.
But he keeps the best for the end and after a huge earthquake which demolishes his tower he takes to the air and swoops on stage from the wings, suspended from above, or later from a mobile crane onstage. He walks in the air and hovers over the stalls and for a final and unexpected effect shoots vertically up to disappear in the flies. It is difficult to criticise such a likable performer, one with so much talent and whose unique achievements are obviously the result of years of work. But the production lacks the structure of his other works; there is much repetition and even the danger that some of the scenes could appear to be just ‘fooling around’. A good fifteen minutes could be cut and the performance would benefit, but perhaps there was some added improvisation in what was Raoul’s final performance. However, in Antibes Thierrée won a tumultuous reception, and continued to dance on and off stage throughout the many minutes of applause, much to everybody’s enjoyment.