I was totally speechless when I came out of the theatre. I found it very difficult to talk to my friends who were with me then. Once I regained some kind of power of speech, which took a while and seemed to invoke quite a bit of worrying on my friends’ side, they asked me whether I liked it. I said yes, but immediately started wondering whether that was the right word to describe it. Would I say I liked an experience that felt like being grabbed by my shirt front and shaken around before having my face slapped? But did I dislike it? No, that was not the right word either. There were many moments that made me uncomfortable and yet it did not make me want to get up or not want to watch it again.
I had been spending the weekend in Lausanne watching the semi-final and final of the prestigious ballet competition for young dancers. The night before we left, a friend of mine who was putting me up took me and another friend to see a sort of physical theatre. It was choreographed by James Thiérrée who happens to be Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. Apparently he grew up in a circus and his choreography is full of acrobatic moves.
When the audience was admitted to the auditorium, the stage looked as though it had not been set properly. At the back of the stage was a large structure of what looked like pipes running both horizontally and vertically with mirrors behind. This structure, which I took to be a back drop, was actually on a very strong set of casters and could glide around the stage and the whole panel itself could revolve about its horizontal axis. There were no wings and the lighting rig was hanging down low. I had been wondering what would then happen, when a young man came onto the stage and from that moment on I was mesmerised.
On the little programme they gave out, there was no synopsis. New as I was to this kind of theatre, I was made slightly uneasy by not knowing what the plot was supposed to be. This, apparently, was the intention of Thiérrée. I was given a rare chance to meet one of the cast members, Noémie Ettlin, after the performance and the first thing I asked about was the plot. To this question she replied, “I can tell you the specific story that the choreographer told us (performers), but he doesn’t want the audience to know precisely what it is. He wants them to interpret it themselves”. This was a new idea for me. And what an idea it was! Thiérrée wants the audience members to dig into their own hearts and find out their own answers. This is probably why it touched me so deeply.
Noémie told us a few things, nevertheless. The old man who was the centre of the piece was a tyrant and the rest of the cast (two men and seven girls) were a small society that represents his inner self. And this unit is rebelling against his system. The scaffolding with the mirror at the back represents the master of the old man, i.e. not the reality but the images. At the end the girls gradually dismantle the scaffolding and the mirrors and the whole frame detaches itself from the base and lifts off.
All the way through the piece, which was just over an hour long, the scaffolding was used as a part of the performance. It felt as though it was a part of the cast. It glided along and span around, the whole of the panel swung like that of the mirror of a dresser. On the one side, the mirror was covered by what looked like pipes but on the other side was just mirror that looked slightly tarnished. This panel would then tilt and sometimes it adopted such an angle that the performers were reflected so the audience could see two sides of them. At one point it was even set at an angle so that the audience itself was reflected, drawing us into the whole drama, as though to ask us to look into our own heart. It also felt like the side that was covered by the pipes was the caged feeling of the man, whereas the mirror only side was representing freedom from all his agony. However, the mirror was still tarnished (“it was difficult for the set designer to make it look old and used”, said Noémie).
Most, if not all, of the props they used were on casters. Chairs, sewing machine, a large desk, armchair (which seemed to be the comfort zone for the man)… there was even a large structure full of cables that trapped some of the girls. This piece was full of the imagery of being trapped and trying to escape from it. When the mirrors were finally dismantled and lifted off, it felt as though the man was finally free of his inner struggle and had come to terms with himself; a kind of enlightenment in which he had learned to like himself, or at least accept himself as he was, at long last.
Another aspect that struck me was the sound effects. First I thought it was a little on the loud side, but later decided that I had found it a little much as I already had the beginnings of a headache when I arrived at the theatre. They used music, but also a lot of sound effects including shuffling of paper and heartbeats, all very loud. I forgot my headache very soon. Some of the sound effects were a little uncomfortably loud; but with hindsight, it would not have had the same effect had it been quieter, especially for sounds such as the heartbeat. When the heartbeat was so loud, it stopped me thinking and trying to analyse what it all meant. Then I felt the discomfort of the man being trapped. As the heartbeat subsided, I could breathe normally again and so could the man. It brought me and the man together and I felt as though I was not just watching the performance but was forced to look deep into my own heart.
Aside from all this, there was a somewhat cooler part of me as a dancer watching and admiring the level of control that all the performers had over their own bodies. One was a contortionist who could do things such as run while she was in a bridge position, and another a man who was both extremely agile and strong. But what amazed me more than anything was just how much energy every one of them was putting into the performance. They were doing sixteen performances over a three week period and we watched the thirteenth performance. How do they keep up that much energy? Every single movement that was made looked as though it was coming from the deepest part of their inner selves. Without such energy, this piece would never work. It would end up looking like a pretentious arty thing that no-one understands.
I could carry on trying to describe more about this, but this is a piece to be watched; not to be analysed or recounted. If you ever have a chance to see it, don’t miss it. I cannot promise you a warm fuzzy feeling afterwards, but this is guaranteed to touch you. Whether you like it or not is a different matter. Neither can I guarantee that you will understand what is going on. As Noémie so aptly said, “he (Thiérrée) likes mystery”. And I am happy for it to stay that way. Maybe it is the Japanese in me, but I am happy for the mystery to stay a mystery in some cases and this is definitely one of them.