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James Thierree - The Toad Knew

Family matters to James Thierree, the Swiss-born theatrical alchemist who brings his dark tale, The Toad Knew, to Edinburgh International Festival next week. Such concerns are there in this tale of a brother and sister who remain children forever, but it's there as well in his real life lineage growing up in his parents circus where as a child he performed alongside his own sister. Given too that Thierree's grand-father was comic genius Charlie Chaplin, and his great-grandfather playwright Eugene O'Neill, it might be fair to say that Thierree is following in some pretty large artistic footsteps.

As The Toad Knew should make clear, however, he has trodden his own singular path in a piece made for his Compagnie du Hanneton ensemble that follows the adventures of five characters in a mix of dance, circus and physical theatre which also looks to the likes of Salvador Dali and Tim Burton for its fantastical execution.

“I wanted to explore something intimate,” Thierree says of the roots of The Toad Knew. “I'd just done a big choreographic show, and I started with this idea of a brother and sister being kidnapped and taken to this weird place. Of course, I re-read all the typical tales of children being kidnapped in Grimms' tales and so on, and thought about them having to experience this tremendous anguish in that situation.

In The Toad Knew, the children grow up, and are shaped by the world they were taken to, and become old children trying to find the code or key to escape, with the voice of the jailer ever-present. For me it's important to get the audience to leave their rational brains behind, accept the rules of the world onstage and let themselves go on this visceral and intuitive journey.”

Thierree made his stage debut aged four in 1978, playing a walking suitcase opposite his elder sister Aurelia in Le Cirque Imaginaire, the experimental circus run by his parents, Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierree. Thierree toured with the company and its successor, Le Cirque Invisible, until he was twenty. Given that he was born into the circus rather than having to run away and join it, such a peripatetic existence has inevitably trickled down into his own work beyond it.

This began first on screen with Thierree playing one of three Ariels in Peter Greenaway's 1991 film inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero's Books. Greenaway's maverick casting on the film included having John Gielgud as Prospero, Michael Clark as Caliban and Mark Rylance as Ferdinand.

Thierree's film career has continued alongside his theatre work, and he was nominated for a most promising actor award for his turn in Eurotrash presenter Antoine de Caunes' 2006 film, Twice Upon A Time. Most recently he appeared in Chocolat, a film about Chocolate the clown, the first black circus artist to grace the ring in nineteenth century France.

Onstage, Thierree's career beyond Le Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible began in a Paris production of Fassbinder's play, Pre-Paradise, Sorry Now. It was when he founded Compagnie du Hanneton in 1998 to produce his first show, The Junebug Symphony, however, that Thierree really started to make waves with his stage work.

With Le Figaro describing The Junebug Symphony as one of the top ten shows of the decade, Thierree followed it up with the equally acclaimed Bright Abyss, and has since created three more works, Au Revoir Parapluie in 2007, a solo piece, Raoul, in 2009, and Tabac Rouge in 2013. While the worlds he created in all of his spectacles are born of an imagination forged outwith mainstream theatre, all he will say about the influence that growing up in the circus has had on his work is a quietly charming “Most probably, but the advantage here is that I don't think about it, and I don't think I would create a show about that experience.

“As a child you accept whatever situation you're in. The reality we were in was very special. We were touring with the circus, and performing was part of our daily activity. It was just part of our game, whereas strangest for us was school. I thought school and regular life was exotic. School was a jungle, a scary and mysterious place, whereas the circus, the touring and all of that was my everyday experience.

“With this show,” Thierree says of The Toad Knew, “there's maybe a feeling of coming back to familiar ground, of getting back to working with a troupe and searching for a world of ideas. I'm very pragmatic. Of course, I come from the circus, but it wasn't really a circus as we think of a circus. It was more about experimentation, whether that was through acrobatics or whether it was absurdism. My parents were exploring and playing with ideas around the circus as they directed it, but I was always on a theatrical stage. The trick here is to take all these physical ideas and to blend them in a way that doesn't look like it's just presenting a series of moments. That's why the set's important. You can blend it into a world of ideas.”

Where previously Thierree's physical ideas have manifested themselves in the form of talking teapots and umbrella jellyfish. In The Toad Knew, Thierree promises a vintage feel.

“I like old things,” he says, “old props and so forth. I don't know why, but my sets are always full of things worn down by time. I never build a modern contemporary set. I know a spend a huge amount of time on preparing the set. For me it is the lead character that undergoes a metamorphosis. I work with the crew on it for months. That's the first game I play, then once the character is there we bring in the human factor, and we just have to make this place our home.”

Again and again, Thierree's speech fuses the domestic with images from his imagination in a way that suggests his art and life are inseparable. His talk of games and play as well not only takes theatre back to its purest essence, but suggests that, for all his pragmatism and technical expertise, as a child of the theatre, he too has never fully grown up, retaining a sense of wonder that fires his work.

At the time of talking, Thierree, Compagnie du Hanneton and The Toad Knew are on tour at the Naples Festival. As with the circus, life on the road with a show can be a gruelling experience.

“The baby is screaming a little bit for rest,” Thierree jokes, personifying the show as one might imagine he does with its component parts on a nightly basis, “but we're recuperating, so we'll be fresh and joyful in Edinburgh.”

For all the technical and physical intricacy involved in The Toad Knew, Thierree's flights of fancy remain at a heart which he's perfectly willing to allow to go off on flights of fancy of their own making.

“There is a story,” he says, “and we try to tell the story more or less, but then the story goes away and becomes something else. My point is not to say once upon a time there was a toad who was a man. Who cares? We try and pull the same strings of childhood learning. I like the idea that the children learn something from a creature, and then they move on, and we never know what happens after that.

“In most stories there is supposed to be a happy ever after, but I don't think that's the case here. I think the brother and sister in The Toad Knew are more traumatised than anything. They're freaked out ever after, and remain freaks forever. That for me is the conclusion of it all. We are freaks. Let's enjoy it.”

The Toad Knew, King's Theatre, August 24-28, 8pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 20th 2016

ends

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