Tabac Rouge – Sydney Festival Opening Night…a theatre review by Deb Meyer

January 9, 2015 by Deb Meyer
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I can’t profess to understanding everything I saw and experienced in this latest production from James Thierree’s Compagnie du Hanneton, but with Tabac Rouge (Red Tobacco) I was blown away nonetheless!

A scene from

A scene from Tabac Rouge

With opening night immediately following the tragic murder of 12 Parisian staff from the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the final curtain call was especially moving with the 13 performers following their bows with signs that read “Je suis Charlie”. Not to be confused with Thierree’s grandfather, the late film maker Charlie Chaplin. The immediate standing ovation was emotional for all present, both on and off the stage.

A very poignant ending to a dark, confronting and at times confusing piece of theatre, though more of a tightly choreographed dance piece combining elements of circus, mime and theatrical inventiveness. Tabac Rouge is a highly visual, energetic and evocative production, with a striking array of images, arresting movement, creativity and cleverness and extraordinary technical elements. A narrative or semblance of plot is not in Thierree’s lingua franca.

With a cranky old monarch as Thierree’s protagonist, we witness his self-destruction, with ever-present decay and disintegration around him. Themes of separation, identity, control and pending death are explored through movement – of bodies and set pieces, music, dance and lighting. The king is a doomed man but we know not why. James Thierree gives nothing away in the program, choosing to keep a veneer of intrigue and ambiguity, simply suggesting “one has to keep faith and gather reflective fragments together”. The creative process in developing this piece is more one of texturing and layering of ideas rather than a clear narrative. Thierree admits to the result being ‘mysterious’ even for him.

Thierree is brilliant in the lead role, bringing a lifetime of honed circus skills and theatricality to the stage. He brings much-needed humour into the dark role. Valerie Doucet’s performance as a contortionist is a standout, though she never does much standing – moving around the stage in any number of seemingly impossible backbends and twisted manoeuvres, looking more like a character from a Pixar animation. Her quirky character and vibrancy bring a welcomed lightness each time she appears. Actor and acrobat Magnus Jakobsson brings a wonderful melange of comic clowning skills. Other international dancers, as subjects of the king, are all highly skilled and engaging to watch as they explore intriguing forms of movement and dance.

The dark and evocative tone and mood of the production is brilliantly captured with an inspired soundtrack, by Thomas Delot and haunting lighting by Bastien Courtieu. Thierre’s set design is equally mesmerising, with huge, moving industrial panels of beams and tarnished mirrors and elaborate desks, which twist and turn around the stage with fervour.

Sound effects are used to great delight, from the opening scene of Magnus Jakobsson’s character smoking tobacco, with the inhalation and exhalation of smoke – one of many lovely vignettes showcasing Thierree’s wonderful sense of comic timing. In a production with minimal spoken words, other sounds are particularly heightened, as is vision, with a dimly lit stage for much of the production. Occasional flashing lights may prove problematic for some.

With the start to Sydney’s Festival, this dance/circus/theatre production will no doubt divide audiences, but, as with all artists, whether they be dancers, circus performers or cartoonists, pushing boundaries and challenging conventions is part of their craft. We are fortunate to have Thierree’s French based company on our shores and, in support of their freedom of artistic expression, hope they return for many years to come.

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