“Shake it and see what happens”: the confusing world of James Thierrée | Arrange

“Shake it and see what happens”: the confusing world of James Thierrée | Arrange

In the captivating shows of James Thierrée, the furniture has a life of its own: the brasserie chairs make a duo with their seats and the velvet sofas engulf people. It is therefore a little disconcerting to share a corner of the table in a Parisian café with this leader of the unexpected who pivots in his seat. But Thierrée is just waiting for his morning coffee, he explains, turning around with a hoarse laugh.

Thierrée looks like an inventor with his white jacket, his round glasses and his soft fringe of salt and pepper curls. His latest concoction is Room, which is on a European tour until the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) in August. By then, explains Thierrée, his Chamber will have been somewhat rearranged. “I never want them to be bored,” he says of the musicians and dancers who perform his loose scrimmage of sketches and tricks in a huge living room that’s built in front of us on stage and then quickly destroyed. “Every afternoon, we exchange a piece of music. I warned everyone that it’s going to move all the time. He takes on the roles of architect and director in the story, attempting to bring his surroundings together but constantly being upset by them.

James Thierrée in Au Revoir Parapluie at Sadler's Wells, London, in 2007.
James Thierrée in Au Revoir Parapluie at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2007. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Thierrée’s visually arresting shows – including former FEI productions Tabac Rouge and The Toad Knew – are usually accompanied by threadbare storylines. This time, the connection between musical instruments and the instrument of the human body was his starting point for an exploration of the “whim of pleasure and music and nonsense”. Her collection of pick ‘n’ mix artists arrived for rehearsals in 2020 only to return home the next day due to rising Covid cases. Now he hopes the coin will ring with pandemic-weary audiences who want to let loose a bit – although the one-piece setting is sure to cause some backlashes to lockdown. “These bloody walls!” he moaned, remembering his spell of isolation.

In the absence of a plot, he likes to give the audience a tempo. “We can follow a rhythm,” he says, explaining that we are not just creatures of the intellect but of “rhythm and unconscious yearnings.” If there’s a philosophy on the show, he says, it’s to “embrace the chaos.” Did he give his performers similar advice for the creative process? “I try to tell them it should be about their heads too. If I’m just directing my dream, it’s kind of a lonely process. I need their madness. The production has become a kind of cultural exchange: the musicians wander around the stage, guided by Thierrée, as he sings on stage for the first time.

“Usually I’m just a moving guy,” he says, somewhat underestimating his incredible dexterity. But the rehearsals raised a question: “What if this movement also produced a voice? Before long, he was adding dialogue in different languages ​​and rapping. But none of this should come as a surprise, he says. “When you come from the circus, you try stuff – trapeze, acrobatics, juggling… You just put your hands on something and shake it and see what happens.”

This attitude is a legacy of his illustrious family tree. Thierrée is the great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill, the grandson of Charlie Chaplin and the son of Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and Victoria Chaplin, whose traveling circus he and his sister Aurelia performed from an early age. It radiates by evoking a world where “the act is only the act – a proposal and a response”. In the music hall, “anyone with an idea can become a star. It fascinated me. Someone could do fun stuff with a cigar and do that for 20 years.

Upset… Chamber of Thierrée. Photography: Richard Haughton

Chocolat, the 2016 film directed by Roschdy Zem and starring Thierrée, explored the sustainability of these traditions amid changing tastes and new technologies. He plays George Foottit, who teams up with Rafael “Chocolat” Padilla (Lupin’s Omar Si), for a clown act in Paris Belle Epoque. Both give superb performances – Thierrée is brooding and inscrutable, bottled up for most of the film until he bursts into a smile in his bittersweet climax. The film ends with archival footage of actual Foottit and Chocolat performing their act. What part of Thierrée’s work has been recorded? “I was very bad at it,” he grimaces. The archival recordings serve a purpose, but he is skeptical of the artistic merits of filmed theater – “the beauty of it is that it is ephemeral”, he suggests. “It’s our lot: we have to be very bright and then fade with our absence from the scene.”

Playwrights and choreographers leave a legacy in the scripts and stages they create that are passed on to future performers. The productions of Thierrée are perhaps more delicate to preserve. “Do we need to leave a trace?” he asks. “My grandfather left a lasting mark. From our point of view, it’s fantastic. From his point of view, I don’t know – he’s gone. He can no longer enjoy it.

Chaplin made the transition from vaudeville to the big screen with spectacular success; Chocolat’s music hall performers fear their art form will be overshadowed by film. A century later, it’s the streaming giants that pose a threat, but Thierrée still defends the unparalleled mystery of the scene as its USP. “You have to enter this theater and take a risk.” His productions become love letters to the theater itself. “It’s a temple and it’s also extremely simple,” he marvels. “The rules of the game in the theater have always remained the same, technically. You don’t need long years of training to understand how theater works: sound, light, decor. And yet it repeats itself. It’s a beautiful subject. If he ever writes a novel, he says, he will have a production. “Maybe an Agatha Christie inside the theater,” he chuckles.

Tabac Rouge at Sadler's Wells in 2014.
“It’s almost overwhelming how free I am”… Tabac Rouge at Sadler’s Wells in 2014. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In the meantime, he is finishing a screenplay, titled Grog, which he will direct. It is an attempt to find a cinematographic language that corresponds to the scenic work he created with the Compagnie du Hanneton, the troupe he formed in 1998. . As an actor, his films range from the blockbuster The Emperor of Paris, starring Vincent Cassel, to quirky independent films like Bartleby, Andreas Honneth’s 2010 adaptation of the Herman Melville story. The latter had an artisanal quality, blending silent film techniques, scenic cunning and the eccentric object theater in a way that is reminiscent of Thierrée’s shows. His role as Melville’s scribe, which adopts the “I’d rather not” verse as a menacing mantra, matched his beatific but brooding face brilliantly.

The moonlight in the cinema has, he says, “nourished” his work in the theatre. “It’s interesting to be an instrument for the director, to serve someone else’s vision. In my business, it’s almost overwhelming how free I am. I don’t even have a play to be faithful to. He describes film roles as small assignments, having inhabited the world of Room for over two years now – and will do so for several more months on the road.

For Thierrée, the show’s apartment is a character with its own agenda – “more than your own needs” – and, like any room, evokes memories of former occupants. Kind of like the theater buildings themselves, then, providing space for companies to move in, make their mark, and move on? He smiles. “Yes that’s it.”

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