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Theatre of disarray: Tabac Rouge at the 2015 Sydney Festival

James Thierrée’s Tabac Rouge - a ghoulish dreamscape “choreodrama” at Sydney Festival. AAP/Paul Miller

French circus performer and director James Thierrée famously eschews comparison with his grandfather Charlie Chaplin, to whom he bears a conspicuous resemblance. But as he and his troupe stood on stage during the curtain call at the Sydney Theatre holding up printed signs of “Je suis Charlie”, it was difficult not to make the connection between the two. But of course he was referring to another Charlie.

The opening night of Tabac Rouge at the Sydney Festival last Thursday ended in a standing ovation. In a sudden flow of emotion, the audience rose in a unanimous show of support for the victims of the January 7 terrorist attack in Paris where 12 people were shot dead at the headquarters of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

This collective expression of feeling came as a shock – while the performance of Compagnie du Hanneton could be described as nothing less than extraordinary, it had been curiously absent of pathos and sentiment.

But let us rewind.

Tabac Rouge begins in a theatre of disarray – with blinking lights, groaning scaffolding and electrical wires gone awry. A dusty old man (Thierrée) appears on stage as if emerging from a sepia photograph. He lights a pipe, slumps into an enormous chair and descends into an opium-inspired reverie of both hilarious and nightmarish proportions.

Tabac Rouge. Richard Haughton/Sydney Festival

Heralding Compagnie du Hanneton’s third return to Sydney, the show can be described as ghoulish dreamscape “choreodrama” about a prototypical creative tyrant battling guilt, memory and the figments of his imagination. Intermittent illuminations dissolve into paranoid fantasies. As dancers change from sycophants to wild gamines, hurling themselves at him in anger, he is tormented and disabused.

One is reminded not only of the fate of King Lear, but of the world of fin-de-siècle Paris where the decadent habits of poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarmé inspired some of the most exquisitely chaotic poetry in history. Thierrée’s Tabac Rouge – as perfectly orchestrated ramshackle – is its theatrical equivalent.

The show is structured as a series of sequences in dance, trickery, acrobatics and vaudeville, which variously metamorphose into one another. A wave of constantly shifting musical cues shatters any sense of continuity. Props become characters. Dancers become objects. Scenery comes to life.

Mirrors dazzle and shimmer and rotate. Experimentations with light and sound chequer the ever-moving vista of furious performers, who gesture, mime and contort themselves into astonishing revelations of presence and absence, light and shadow, power and subordination.

If there is any sense of narrative, it is a fractured one, as audiences grasp at shards of images – a junkyard writing desk, a roving ship-machine – and try to weave meaning into the mess, only to be interrupted by the strike of a match signalling the next excursion into the old man’s bright and burnt-out world.

Tabac Rouge. Richard Haughton/Sydney Festival

The exceptional talent and vivid imagination of Swiss-born Thierrée comes as no surprise considering his illustrious parentage. As son of circus performers Victoria Chaplin (who still makes his costumes) and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée, he and his sister Aurelia grew up performing all over France and abroad with the family’s highly innovative Cirque Imaginaire (now Le Cirque Invisible). And as great-grandson of playwright Eugene O’Neill, the genius genes were well and truly set.

Since starting his own company, Thierrée has won numerous awards and distinctions for his groundbreaking productions such as Junebug Symphony and Au Revoir Parapluie, which fuse dance, circus acts, music hall, physical theatre, installation and sound-art – with almost anything else he can find. Delving into themes of theatricality, control and ageing, Tabac Rouge is darker than these.

Some of the show’s slapstick is indeed Chaplinesque. One of the most impressive comic aspects of the show is the deft sound-scaping and the ingenious way in which Thierrée and his gang shrug and flinch to the clatter and scratch of technology now outmoded, such as record players, typewriters and sewing machines.

Some of the exaggerated encounters with technology are reminiscent of an expressionist film on fast-forward. The old man’s body too becomes alien to him in his old age – like a clock gone bust - his legs, arms and hands seem to betray him with madcap movements.

This is a show where sound and image take precedence over story; Thierrée’s choreographic explorations – which can best be characterised as dance theatre – brilliantly exploit a startling range of music, from experimental instrumentation, to baroque opera, to fanfare and techno-pop.

Dancers move like wind-up toys or electrocuted stagehands. Props and setting combine curious evocations of steam-punk in a shattered universe of infinite suggestions, of sculptures and objets trouvés, of some of the most remarkable tableaux vivants you’ll ever witness.

Tabac Rouge plays at the Sydney Festival until January 23.

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