Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 3 October 2013

Bouffon and the Art of Red Bastard

Performance artist Eric Davis on Lecoq, clowning and catharsis.

Lorna Irvine

Bouffon it seems, is having something of a cultural Renaissance. It is perhaps hardly surprising that this particular artistic and theatrical satirical expression thrives today, as a reaction to conservatism in these uncertain times of recession and political turmoil.

The word ‘Bouffon’, which comes from the French ”farceur”, comedian, has its roots in Latin- the verb ”buffare”- to puff up one’s cheeks. Roman theatre-going audiences loved to watch performers ”buffo”, puff up their cheeks and blow raspberries, sneering at prominent establishment figures of the day. This was re-discovered when Jacques Lecoq used it to describe a method of parody which he taught in his L’Ecole Internationale de Theatre in Paris in the sixties, and it subsequently came to be known as a common theatrical term. In English, we often refer to idiotic behaviour as ‘buffoonery’.

Generally speaking though, it is a darker, more erratic form of clowning- a less family-friendly way of expressing parodic disciplines. It can be found in commedia dell’arte, farce and vaudeville… anywhere so long as there is a subversive, uncomfortable element of humour played out with grace as well as grotesques.

Bouffons are mocking of everyone and nothing is considered taboo or off-limits, as they are holding up a mirror to societal norms and institutions: religion, sexual mores, family, gender, education, politics, morality and death can be efffortlessly parodied- so long as a larger truth is revealed- this is its very essence. The ego must be deflated, pomposity pricked. A belly laugh goes hand-in-hand with a shudder.

This year, American Eric Davis, another performer who, along with Clout and Rhum and Clay theatre companies studied at the prestigious Lecoq school, garnered critical acclaim and sell-out shows right across the board at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with his own unique, often controversial spin on the art of bouffon, Red Bastard.

With his bulbous tomato hued prosthetic suit, intimidating red- rimmed glower and frenetic energy, Red Bastard wears his many contradictions with pride: he is balletic in his every precise movement, but indelicate; both bullying mutant and self-help guru, confronting the audience with facing their own limitations and inadequacies, while allowing them to beat him up. He breaks not only the fourth wall, but demolishes any existing barriers between audience member and performer, like a truth-seeking missile.

There is a completely uncompromising, fearless Shamanic spirit to his work- and almost a punk rock sensibility. He is divisive and many walk-outs have been known at his shows(often actively encouraged, if an audience member refuses to engage with him). Impossible to categorise, he crosses genres- which is why it was a little bizarre, yet not entirely a shock, to see that he had been stuck in the section marked ‘comedy’ at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, as reductive as that may have seemed.

I asked Davis, who is currently in London, how he was processing being the toast of the Festival, why bouffon is currently having its time within the theatre-going public, and his future plans. His responses were typically pithy and perverse…

You were the runaway hit of this year’s Fringe in Edinburgh- how does that feel?

I’m not sure what to make of it. I was a bit surprised. It usually does well at festivals, but I didn’t know if it would stand out in a fest of 2,800 shows. The press seemed to pick up on it in such a major way, and I’d meet people and they’d ask what show I was doing, and then people would almost do spit takes. Then tell me how much they’d heard about it.

Many of the Lecoq -trained acts went down well at the Fringe- what is the reason for this, in your opinion ?

I can’t say without having seen the shows, but I imagine that people were drawn to the creative physicality of shows. There’s a lot of detached irony in comedy now. Maybe they found the Lecoq stuff refreshing.

Jennifer Swingler from Clout Theatre believes audiences are essentially unshockable these days- do you agree with her ?

Of course Jennifer would say that. Have you seen her bedroom?! I think (most) people have been exposed to a lot, so the way to make an impression is to get personal. I think that’s why the show created such a buzz. I have made it about the audience.

How do British audiences respond, in comparison to say, New York or European audiences, to Red Bastard?

Honestly, I do not find a difference.

Do you think that there is an element of catharsis within your work- for both artist and audience?

There can be. The show has worked on me over time. And I think that it has changed me little by little. I read about a Native American healer who said that if he stopped practicing his medicine on people, he started to get sick again himself. I feel as though I am finally understanding what that means.

”The only people not getting paid are the artists”, you stated on stage- do you think that’s true across the board, within the media ( for many artists, writers, directors, performers etc?)

No. I think there are artists who get paid a shit ton. I’ve been one of them from time to time. But I think you’re refering to something I said at the Edinburgh Festival, and there I think it is true. The system is set up that no matter how incredibly well you do, it’s almost impossible to come away with money. Something is wrong with that.

Are people surprised when they meet you out of character, and see that you are really nice and easy-going?

Fuck you. Next question… (please.)

Where will Red Bastard take his assault next?

I’m not sure. Waiting to see. I’d like to do more on- camera experiments with him. I’m talking to some TV people. I’m talking to some people about Off -Broadway. Who knows. This week, It’s London. And I’m excited about that.

Red Bastard is at the Brady Arts Centre, London, on 4th and 5th October 2013. For tickets visit Adamotions.com

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Lorna Irvine is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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