James Thierree began his performance career at a young age, as part of his parent’s circus. His diverse skills include acrobatics, clowning, magic and acting, to name but a few. This eclectic background has found its way into the work created for his company, Compagnie du Hanneton, which draws its influences from the worlds of circus, dance, theatre and music.
The Toad Knew pulls elements from all of these worlds, but the true focus of this show is upon its fantastical visual design. Behind the red velvet curtain of the opening lies a world of decayed opulence, in which objects have a life of their own. A piano plays by itself, a pool of water bubbles downstage, a metal staircase winds upwards to nowhere. It’s a scene that evokes the jumble of an inventor’s workshop, caught under a veil of enchantment.
A cast of eccentric characters gather, their existence seemingly focused upon a looming mechanical structure that hovers over the stage. Periodically it whirs into being, its petal-like limbs shifting like an alien creature. Whether its presence is controlling the characters or whether it is simply the focus of their experiments remains uncertain and, as the show progresses, we are offered no clear answers.
Instead we witness an eclectic range of ideas and images unfold as Thierree’s bizarre world comes to life. Each of the characters has a unique physical language, their movement lithe and animalistic. Most notable is the twitching, convulsive movements of Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, who seems to yearn for the attention of Thierree. It’s a relationship which, like much of this work, is never really defined. Watching over them is the red-cloaked figure of singer Ofelie Crispin. Her indistinct words and ethereal voice enrich the work’s air of mystery.
Thierree’s skills in ‘clowning’ lead to a number of physical jokes constructed around repeated actions and misunderstandings between himself and the blundering character of performer Herve Lassince. The jokes provide an amusing distraction, although often they meander to their conclusion.
The vague plot (if there is one) and the actions of the characters seem designed around the intricacies of the set. Throughout, the focus of the work remains upon that hovering mechanical structure which, with its sudden undulations that make it appear alive and breathing, is fascinating in itself. Why this mismatched collection of characters are gathered here and what they are searching for remains unfathomable.
The Toad Knew is a surreal, nonsensical concoction. Rather than define the bewitched world he creates Thierree has built a show in which his audience are free to find what they will – a space for their own imaginations to wander. The result is a work filled with visual delights and, if you can enjoy the lack of plot and the way it shifts from one absurdity to another, then the overall effect is quite enchanting. However, if you want definition or answers, you may find this show more frustrating than entertaining.
The Toad Knew was on at Sadler’s Wells from 3-7th May. More information here.