And so we come to part three of the trilogy of trees. Following on from The Crucible and Falstaff, L’Enfant Qui arrived at the Bristol Old Vic for an all-too-brief two night stint as part of the Circus City festival, and once again came prepared with an aesthetic lifted straight from Westonbirt Arboretum in autumn. But where as the troubled world of The Crucible had positioned itself directly in contrast to the dark woods surrounding it and Falstaff had made light footsteps into the brighter dells of the woodland setting, L’Enfant Qui went one more dramatic step inwards (and often with two more people balanced on top of the forward-stepper). Whilst the characters of Falstaff flirted with the idea of creatures great and small lurking amongst the leaves, L’Enfant Qui is one of these creatures himself and the woods he ventures into more weird than anything Shakespeare ever dreamed up, even when thinking of Ariel and Caliban.
Inspired by the life of artist Jephan de Villiers, L’Enfant Qui tells the story of a childhood interrupted by severe illness, and the resulting isolation and heightened sensitivity that accompanies such. L’Enfant himself is represented in puppet form. Adorned with nerd glasses (I can say that because I wear them too), and an oversized plaid coat, L’Enfant is in fact one of those young children who disarmingly resemble old men. His only especially child-like characteristics come in the form of a constantly running nose (and no handkerchief, tut-tut) and that precocious rudeness only little children (and not old men) can get away with. Riffling through an audience member’s bag – and flinging her purse out as he goes – he could be the French cousin of that Bad Baby of Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs who goes all trumpetty trumping down the road onboard an elephant, but never (and listen here, kiddies, for the moral of the tale) never once said thank you. Perhaps if you are let loose to explore ‘nearly dead things’ (the publicity’s words, not mine) then you miss out on the opportunity to be read moralising children’s literature. But never mind, because this little boy is, like a lot of annoying toddlers, ultimately too cute to stay mad at for more than 20 seconds, and when the woodland imps and spirits go a bit mean and start blowing chalk in his face (shame on them and their attitudes to sick children) we, the audience, just want to wrap bubby up and make the boo boo all better.
Or something. Actually the creatures from the wood – whether from L’Enfant’s feverish mind or not – are as equally captivating, if not more, as the wobbly-walking babba. If someone held a trapeze to my head, I couldn’t quite tell you what the exact narrative at all times is here, as it frequently feels like more of an excuse to loosely group together and performance three-person acrobatic tricks. But when the ‘tricks’ are of such an insanely talented and well-executed level, the only person shouting for more narrative would have to have less joy in their heart than that elephant after it dropped the baby back home to mummy. One of the great pleasures of seeing ballet, including the abstract pieces included in the ENB’s modern repertoire is marveling at the jaw-dropping physicality of the dancers: a physicality that the word ‘dedication’ doesn’t even come close to. Here, we have this same element replicated. As a member of the human race known to fall over their own feet, I am at a loss to guess how many hours it takes to learn to balance on just one of them, whilst turning, turning, turning in the circus version of granny’s music box (seriously, my gran actually had one) atop of someone else’s outstretched palm.
In a moment that would fit well within a No Fit State Circus show, one of the best moments comes when the cellist coolly and incessantly plays the Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No.1, whilst being lifted up and around and down in the air. No matter how many time it is played, there is something so perfectly beautiful and yet simultaneously deeply heartbreaking about the Prelude; time always stops to inhale when those first notes float out and the choice of it as soundtrack to Josh Lyman’s PTS-induced breakdown is a key episode in cementing the West Wing’s place as one of the best TV shows ever recorded. This most recognisable piece of music comes out of the show from seemingly nowhere, but its repetitious and, literally, vertigo-inducing sounds perfectly replicate the nauseous earworms that swirl through the minds of those in the sick room.
L’Enfant Qui is a stunning piece of theatre, blending together circus, puppetry and live music in one tumbling hour. The biggest shiny manga eyes are still not wide enough to take in all of this bizarre but beautiful work, and with it we can finally leave the woods alone.