St James Theatre 2, Wellington

14/03/2012 - 18/03/2012

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012

Production Details

“Intimate, profound and intensely poetic.” The Financial Times  

One of Europe’s most extraordinary performance artists, James Thiérrée, returns to Wellingtonwith his new solo show, Raoul. Born into vaudeville royalty, Thiérrée has been performing since the age of four, and has a unique ability to turn everyday events into moments of wonder.

Set against an otherworldly backdrop, Raoul employs mime, clowning, magic and acrobatics in a largely wordless performance. Portraying a lonely hermit and his demons, Thiérrée creates whatNew York magazine describes as “an unforgettable cirque du solitaire, thrilling, hilarious, terrifying, and mysterious, but never obscure”.

Thiérrée’s Bright Abyss, with its spectacular scenes of a dark and dreamlike world, was a hit of the 2006 New Zealand International Arts Festival, with critics calling it physical theatre at its most extraordinary. His Junebug Symphony, which premiered at the Festival in 2004, won four Molière Awards.

Thiérrée grew up in the French circus founded by his parents, pioneers of the ‘new circus’ movement. As a child, he made his film debut as Ariel in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books.

At once funny, poignant and beguiling, Raoul explores issues of identity and existence and has been compared to the works of Beckett. As the artist says: “I like the sense that as life wears us down we become more real.”

St James Theatre
14 to 18 March (no show 15 March)
Tickets $18 – $83 available from Ticketek. 

Silent master at work, but the show went on too long

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Mar 2012

Like his grandfather before him Charlie Chaplin, James Thiérrée is a master of expressing actions and emotions through the physicality of his body unaided by words.  

In his latest show Raoul he shows off his skills and abilities aided by an incredibly creative production team that supports him with an amazing lighting, sound, music and set design as well as some awesome puppets.

Having seen him here in 2004 (The Junebug Symphony) and 2006 (Bright Abyss), Raoul appears darker and deeper but still with the theatrical magic and sheer inventiveness and physicality that Thiérrée brings to his shows.  It is also much more focused on Thiérrée the individual then in his previous shows.

Raoul arrives on stage and attempts to get into his fortress like home made of large metal bars. Having then violently broken-in, his fight is by no means over as he tries to carry on a normal life like listening to music and reading a book, but is continually interrupted by inanimate objects trying to attack him.

Then there are a whole range of weird and wonderful creatures that come to visit such as a massive Mexican walking fish that acts like a pet dog, a strange silverfish, a ballet dancing jellyfish and a life-sized elephant (all created by Thiérrée’s mother Victoria Chaplin)

Yet the show is not all gothic and black as there are many moments of humour that come through and Thiérrée is quite a comedian in his own right.

And it is very spectacular in parts – the opening and closing in particular are quite something in the way they combine the actions of Thiérrée with lighting, sound and the deconstruction and reconstruction of the set.  But overall the show is far too long with as many lows as there are highs.

There is only so much than can be done with Chaplinesque type movement from the Ministry of Silly Walks and when it is used continuously to transition one section of the show to the next it becomes boring and tedious.

Nevertheless the opening night audience gave Thiérrée a standing ovation which he no doubt deserved.  


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Exotic yet somehow familiar: fantastic fun

Review by John Smythe 15th Mar 2012

It is well known that James Thiérée is the son of Jean Baptiste Thiérée and Victoria Chaplin, whose father was Charles – better known as Charlie – Chaplin. It’s less well known that James is the great grandson of American playwright Eugene O’Niell. His stage shows could indeed be described as long days’ journeys into dream worlds of extraordinary imagination.  

This is Thiérrée’s third visit to a New Zealand International Arts Festival: we had The Junebug Symphony in 2004 and Bright Abyss in 2006. In those shows Thiérée was joined on stage by other performers, whereas Raoul is almost a solo show.

I say ‘almost’ because insofar as you can pin down his shows, Raoul is about his relationships with himself, his place of abode and the world around him. He is trying to find himself and a way to be …

When we take our seats the stage is a mess of drunkenly hung, half-dropped, patched old canvass backdrops – the collapsing remnants of old-style theatre, perhaps – from which a drift of smoke rises.  As the houselights lights go down an orange glow behind the drapes floats, strangely … Then suddenly the drapes fly into place at the back and sides of the stage, revealing a chaotic structure of black pipes: a sort of fortress or tower.

Thiérée arrives via the auditorium, clambers up on to the stage, a traveller returned, a castaway perhaps, roughly clad in dirty old clothes. When he finds his way into the structure – a process involving some wonderful acrobatics – he finds himself already sitting in an armchair in a rudimentary living room.

It’s a very clever illusion that happens again when he’s confronted with himself in a big circular mirror and suddenly there’s two of him in the room, so he throws a rug over his other self and bashes it to death with a watering can. Interpret the psychological implications of that as you wish, not to mention the metaphysical and existential questions it raises.

At the curtain call Thiérée is joined by a young man – of similar height and build – who has also inhabited a large would-be friendly catfish-like creature that has visited from time to time, and a somewhat malevolent silverfish, and a wafting anemone, and the front or back of a magnificent – almost ghostly – elephant who arrives to revive Raoul towards the end of the show. Three other operatives also take a curtain call, so there is a team at work (not credited in the programme) to make the show happen, despite its seeming to be about a solitary man who may not even realise he is human, let alone what it is supposed to mean, to be so.

Thiérée’s skills are listed as actor, trapeze artist, acrobat, clown, illusionist and violinist – and all are present in this show. Plus dancing: he dances fabulously, lots of isolation – almost locking and popping, hip-hop style – and he entrances us with some wonderfully lyrical hand movements.

It’s all visual and physical. He does have a voice but no-one to talk to. He shouts at the universe from time to time and tries to get answers from the rattling, moaning, shape-shifting pipes … I think I’m right in asserting the only actual word he utters is “Raoul”, usually as an angry or anguished cry.

In the programme there’s an interview with Elena Greenfield where he says he avoids using words “because there needs to be a space where an audience can actually project what they are about – not just what the show is about.” And he certainly does get our own analytical, interpretative, empathetic and creative juices flowing as he draws us into this weird and wonderful world.

Some of the best moments, that the audience laughs at most, are the most prosaic, like trying to get comfortable to read a book and trying find the best way to sit in a chair.

In clowning terms he’s a man adrift, discovering, fearing, confronting, enjoying and variously coming to terms with a strange world he never quite feels right in – except at the end when he flies. He takes off into a whole new dimension.

Apart from the counter-weighted jib arm used to fly him about in the finale, Thiérée believes in making his shows from whatever he has to hand, rather than getting something built outside and brought in: “We will construct it with what we have, I will perform it and I will believe in it and then everyone will believe in it and that will be fine.” And it is: absolutely fine.

Thiérée is not one to spoon-feed his audience with narrative or meaning. He develops his work intuitively but when Raoul is described as a “meditation on home and identity” he is prepared to accept that as fair enough. “But the whole show, it’s not about home, it’s not about houses,” he adds, “it’s about the soul and it’s about what goes on in the brain and the infinite ways of overcoming whatever obstructs.”

We only have to be human and sentient to engage with his character as he experiences his world, and I would guess most moments prod at a memory and provoke some kind of recognition for most of us.

Raoul is an exotic experience well worth sharing that, despite its physical impossibility in the ‘real world’, somehow feels familiar. Fantastic fun. 


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