He’s Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, but James Thierrée is his own man. He tells Mark Fisher about his love of theatrical mechanics, technical glitches and letting the audience arrive at its own conclusions
When James Thierrée talks about his craft, you can see his body joining in. It’s a subtle thing, but as we chat over a beer in the Montpellier, half an hour after a capacity crowd has given a standing ovation to his new show, The Toad Knew, he gives the sense of being the master of every muscle. Effortlessly good looking with his high cheekbones and riot of curly hair, he holds himself with uncommon poise and seems to send waves of energy rippling down his torso.
Perhaps it’s in his genes. Thierrée is the grandson of that clown par excellence Charlie Chaplin – you can see something of the same bushy hair, heavy eyebrows and symmetrical features – and was brought up in the circus by his parents Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin, who is the daughter of Charlie’s fourth wife, Oona O’Neill.
He was performing by the age of four (inside a suitcase with his legs emerging comically from the bottom) and had run up many hours of stage time before he clocked the significance of the Chaplin name.
“We’re working people,” says Thierrée, who is also the great-grandson of playwright Eugene O’Neill. “We’re not sitting in awe of our lineage in the family. As a child, I didn’t even understand that my grandfather was Charlie Chaplin; I didn’t get it. We were just in the work and moving from town to town. I got it by ricochet from kids in school. The influence is only there in the sense of transmitting that passion for work. I didn’t study him.”
Whatever his lineage, Thierrée is his own man on stage. He stands at the centre of The Toad Knew, a mysterious fantasia that takes the familiar techniques of circus and variety and blends them into a theatrical whole.
His is a world of the imagination, at turns funny, surreal and unsettling. It begins like one of those backwards passages in a David Lynch movie: a singer melts into the red curtains, the curtains roll themselves up to reveal the stage, dust cloths slip away into the wings, a woman lies asleep at the piano and a spiral staircase builds itself out of thin air.
From out of this, Thierrée offers a sequence of scenes about attachment and release; encounters that explore the need for company and the equal need for independence.
At least, that’s how it appears to me. Thierrée’s work is enigmatic, nonlinear and impressionistic, leaving the audience room to interpret his vision in whatever way they choose. “I remember the first feeling I had when I thought I would like to do this,” he says. “It’s more a feeling, an atmosphere with human interactions. There was a feeling of being between brothers and sisters – there’s a bit of that but it’s almost like a texture or a smell.”
His approach is akin to that of a composer, someone less concerned with literal meaning than with light and shade, rhythm and pace, the emotional effects of a score. “Oui, oui,” he says. Born in Switzerland in 1974, he has perfect command of English, but often flips back into French. “Oui, oui, c’est ça,” he’ll say in agreement.
“I’m searching for that feeling when you listen to a piece of music,” he continues. “For example, in the show there’s a piece by Jascha Heifetz playing Mozart – it’s such a story when you listen to it and yet you have no idea what it’s about. Deep down inside, you understand. Ideally, I would like the show to go this way – that people understand somewhere in the guts what it vibrates with.”
As you may suppose from the title, The Toad Knew does feature a toad on a couple of occasions, but not in a way that makes any obvious narrative sense – or none we would all agree on. “I always make sure we don’t go into storytelling because that’s not my talent,” he says.
Rather, he works with clown, acrobat, musician and dancer to perform feats of magic, poetry and slapstick that have their own internal logic. He takes up a violin, goes through body popping dance movements and performs a silly routine with his wayward hair. Meanwhile the piano plays itself, the tumbler twists on her head and, high above, a figure twists and turns like a big-top trapeze artist.
“I was never a specialist,” says Thierrée. “I was never an amazing acrobat. I learned a lot of things but I could have been a total loser because I wasn’t good enough at any of them. But then, my way was to make all these things weld to the service of this language that I would start to build.”
That language builds in what may or may not be a subterranean dungeon in the kind of steam-punk landscape you can imagine Terry Gilliam designing. Looming oppressively overhead is a set of wooden-framed transparent polygons, each suspended by wires stretching noisily into the ceiling. If you wanted a set designed to suffer technical glitches it would look very like this. “The set is very fragile,” he agrees. “It’s like a beast. We have to feed it and take care of it.”
But it’s all intentional. He was aiming for a show that revealed its mechanical secrets even as it made you believe in magic. “I said, ‘I want small strings everywhere and I want everything to be manipulated from the wings’,” says the actor/director who also shares responsibility for design, original music and lighting. “I’ve always thought there’s a lot of magic in theatre mechanics, and you can show it to the audience. I try to show as much as possible, because strangely it’s as magic to see how magic functions. I don’t think it takes away anything. They get the magic, then they understand how it worked – and who cares?”
The Toad Knew will be his first production in the Edinburgh International Festival after a string of acclaimed visits to London with shows including Tabac Rouge, Raoul and Au Revoir Parapluie. This is one of the largest-scale shows he has done but, behind its sophisticated stage craft, it retains the hand-crafted DIY aesthetic for which he is known. He’d rather the unpredictability of something homemade than the bland security of something polished.
“It’s just exciting – the fact that we’re all in this big place, sharing that moment,” he says. “Something’s going to happen tonight. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen. We have all these ways to provoke things, but it’s never going to be as expected.”
So is it true to say, I ask, that behind the 21st-century technology, the magic tricks he performs operate in exactly the same way as those performed by magicians his grandfather would have known on the music-hall circuit? “Oui, voila, yes, 50 years ago or 100 years ago. For me, paradoxically, simplicity is very important. In the end what we do is simple.”
It is those simple ideas he brings together in the hope of provoking an emotional reaction. “We’re happy in theatre when we have ten minutes of intense movement,” he says. “That’s all we ask for, but we rarely get it. We think, we analyse, but the moments when something really moves inside – if we can have five or ten minutes of that, it’s a miracle. So I hope we have about five minutes!”
Take it from me: they have considerably more.
l The Toad Knew, King’s Theatre, 24-28 August, 8pm