It’s often said that a good set becomes a character in its own right, allowing deeper insight into the piece itself and allowing for greater interaction with actors and audience. Rarely has set been seen as a ‘dancer’ in a choreographed work, but in Tabac Rouge, James Thiérrée allows his design to become exactly that. Desks, chairs, contraptions and – most strikingly – a giant mirror whizz across the stage aided by eleven human dancers in a messy, eclectic piece which sizzles and surprises.
In the opening moments of Thiérrée’s ‘choreodrama’, the metallic, wiry mechanics of theatre open up to reveal a quietly totalitarian regime, where a group of women are subordinated by a goose-stepping spiv. They follow a predetermined path, demonstrating little individuality, before our anti-hero – Thiérrée himself – enters in a sumptuously comic sketch which sees him trying to get through a tiny locked door. It’s a moment which sets the zany, somewhat incoherent tone of Tabac Rouge, as we see other skits involving torn up, then sewn-together paper, a contortionist who helps the protagonist lose his head and a whole five minutes of a microphone and paper being used to make what amounts to little more than a lot of funny noises.
Over the following ninety minutes, we see this abstract autocracy torn apart and put back together again multiple times, Thiérrée’s Lear-like clown sitting back and watching events play out even as his own troubled mind haunts him. There are gestures towards psychodrama, but sometimes the choreography itself is so large and consuming that we lose the arc of the individual, allowing some moments to become lost in time.
A soundtrack of classical piano, violins and horns is mixed up with booming synths and electronica, with moments of silence thrown in for good measure to keep the piece rolling along. Dancers pop and jolt to the rhythms, with even their own limbs playing tricks of them so that, though they may be standing tall one moment, the next they are curled in a heap on the floor.
Tabac Rouge, too, is a hymn to creativity, with all the beauty and despair that comes with it. In Thiérrée, we have a tortured artist struggling to make sense of the mad world around him, doomed to forever discard his latest work in the hope that the next will be a masterpiece. Sounds related to communication – static, for example, and typing – are layered in to distract the creative from his work, the world around him remaining perpetually more interesting and important than the work itself.
That idea of work is another motif found throughout, with the ensemble of women at one point found in labour slacks in order to undergo the whims of whichever oppressive force watches over them. Their movements become laborious and heavy, and at one point they consume Thiérrée, dancing round him as the image is reflected on the giant mirror, as labour and art find themselves inextricably linked.
It is that wheeled, fragile, industrial-sized mirror which makes Tabac Rouge the piece it is, constantly reflecting both ourselves and the artists on stage. It shifts our perspective, allowing our eyes to play tricks on themselves as lights reflect in unexpected places. Though the final twenty minutes sometimes feel a little drawn-out, the closing moments of Thiérrée’s piece delight and frighten in equal measure as this mirror comes alive after a loud, clattering revolution. The deconstructed stage witnessed upon entering the auditorium is found again, as shattered pieces of mirror hang like a giant children’s mobile, leaving us unsure – as ever – whether oppression has been defeated or strengthened.