La Compagnie du Hanneton @ Festival Theatre
8:00pm, Thu 1 Mar 2012
After the Festival Launch in October 2011, Raoul was the show I was most inspired by… and its presence at the front of the Festival Guide seemed to cement its regard within the Festival hierarchy.
So imagine my surprise when I started seeing flyers and scribbles at AC Arts advertising $15 tickets for Raoul – on opening night, no less – for artists. That surprise was doubled when Festival Theatre was most certainly not sold out… in fact, from our position it was possible to spot long strings of empty seats scattered throughout the stalls.
Puzzling – a near-flagship-status show for the Festival begging for a crowd on opening night?
(I later discovered – after chatting with members of the Festival Board – that they felt that Raoul wasn’t clearly defined to the consumer… that the average Festival punter didn’t know exactly what the show was. Was it theatre? Opera? Dance?)
No matter… as the performance begins, a hauntingly beautiful set composed of pipes and wisps of fabric and dreams stands silently on the left of the stage; James Thiérrée, dressed like a shipwreck survivor, enters his home, and proceeds to mime aspects of domesticity. But his comic interpretations are interspersed by his house slowly crumbling, his magical traversals through the set, or – more impressively – by the appearance of other creatures.
And the creatures themselves are gorgeous works of whimsy, possessing their own personalities as they share the stage with Raoul – the wormy thing (the programme suggests it was a fish, but my memory likes “worm” better) was a delight, but the real joy came from the armoured bug (which I noted as an electric eel). The bug’s scuttling motions (the machinations of which were laid bare for the audience at the end of the performance) had a tangible sense of character that none of the following creatures could match, though the jellyfish nearing the end of the performance was visually stunning.
As these interactions marked time, the set would peel away and re-shape itself: pipes would clatter, sheets would sweep across the stage to their new positions. Eventually, there’s almost nothing left; suddenly, the stage is blacked out and Raoul, picked out by a spotlight, starts flying above the stage and the first few rows of the audience. The spotlight pulls out, showing the stage techs operating the hoist that keeps Raoul aloft; back on the ground again, Thiérrée dismisses the applause the techs receive by covering them with a curtain.
And that was pretty much it. At the end of the day, Raoul seemed to be an evocative blend of theatre, circus, and magic, all infused with dance sensibilities.
Now, there’s no doubting that Raoul is a spectacular visual experience – watching the deconstruction of the set caused my engineering neurons to light up in glee, and whenever Thiérrée disappeared from the set I found myself searching frantically, trying to figure out where (and how) he would re-emerge. It was like watching a magic show accented with technical wizardry. And there’s also little argument that Thiérrée himself is a fantastic performer (and designer, and director): as a nearly mute comic he has an incredible presence (befitting of the grandson of Chaplin), and the way in which he moves makes him seem as light as air.
But there’s also periods where the spectacle slows up, where the “story” is allowed to progress… and, despite the claims of the programme, there really didn’t feel like there was much of a story to be consumed. Or maybe I’m just too dim to recognise that the set, and the creatures within it, were symbolic of Raoul’s mental fragmentation.
Regardless, about halfway through the performance I realised that I was not connecting with the story… and that’s fine, I reasoned: I’m perfectly happy to forgo plot for spectacle, as long as the spectacle remains. But for me, Raoul‘s failing was that there were too many periods when I was not being visually amazed… and that, dare I say it, left me feeling impatient – as I waited for the next element of wonder to be shown to me.
And, as I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but think that Raoul presented an exceptional example of (deep breath) style over substance.
Later that evening, in the Fringe Club, I engaged in much debate over Raoul with those who had enjoyed it far more than I. But, tellingly, one of the more ardent supporters of the show’s merits admitted “it was like a Dr Brown show, but with a ten million dollar budget.”
And that feels pretty apt.