ROOM by James Thierrée’s Compagnie du Hanneton

The media coverage of James Thierrée’s career invariably emphasises the link with his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin. But perhaps his kindred spirit is Jean Tinguely.

As a director James Thierrée is a Dadaist, enamoured of nonsense and delighting in the disorientation produced by a profusion of discontinuous images, sounds and actions. But this Dadaist is also a consummate mime, slapstick man and vocalist whose collaborators each seem to have mastered as many demanding disciplines as he has. On stage they do away with the kind of theatre in which characters are fleshed out and the narrative arc points to a truth verified by a text. What they create instead is part-circus, part-theatre, part-concert and quite close in spirit to visual art.

Room, the company’s most recent work, was presented by the Sydney Festival in January, on Thierrée’s fifth visit to Australia. Ostensibly a pandemic piece but including elements developed prior to Covid-19, it is set entirely within a shabby interior somewhere in cosmopolitan Europe. Here we encounter Thierrée as an architect seated at a drafting table, wrestling with the idea of a space in which to be. Performers come forth from every alcove and intrude upon his concentration. Alessio Negro, clown and stuntman, functions as a right-hand man of sorts but his nonsensical counsel is not constructive. Dancer Ching-Ying Chien shimmies like a caterpillar onto the stage, unexplained, and flops into the internal void of the drafting table, which by some mechanical magic soon transforms into a piano. Before long Thierrée assumes the role of a musical director, subjecting viola player Anne-Lise Binard to an absurd audition in which each of her attempts to bring the bow to the strings is thwarted by his commands.

Episodes like these provide the wonderfully perplexing, potentially annoying substance of the work. Even I, before being thoroughly won over, asked who this man was to have so many brilliant beings orbiting around him as mere bodies, and why again I was being drawn back to a garret in old Europe? Room had quite a number of people shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, if not with these objections then for the sheer marathon of careful attention it demanded. Thierrée’s direction is like a form of collage, executed with trust that the juxtaposition of the elements at his disposal will yield something more than a medley of curious parts. There is no text to fall back on. The question of whether the premise of a man re-imagining the room where he finds himself does indeed draw the threads into thematic coherence perhaps depends on how able the viewer is to cope with complexity; to give up on the stable ground of a storyline and roll with the show. At any one time, multiple feats of human movement might be separately spotlit, with breathtaking music and curious sonic elements in play. Art like this requires some stamina.

But even Room’s twitchy doubters would have to concede that the impression of barely-contained chaos sustained over one hundred minutes is possible only through a thoroughly considered, meticulously timed performance by every artist on stage and many others behind the scenes. There is such purposeful intricacy within every moment that it would be too simple to dismiss Room as an artist’s self-indulgent experiment or to conclude that Thierrée courts the bizarre for bizarreness’ sake. Something is being expressed, and it seems to me that it has to do with the absurdity of our socialised habits of communication and the need for a space to rebel against language.

The media coverage of James Thierrée’s career invariably emphasises the link with his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin. The resemblance is there on his face and in the style of his comedy, but in the days after seeing Room I began to think of another kindred spirit in Jean Tinguely. Swiss, like Thierrée, Tinguely can also be understood as a latter-day Dadaist, constructing kinetic sculptures whose sole purpose was to run themselves into the ground in a final, aesthetic moment of self-destruction. Tinguely’s machine, confounding to itself, resembles Thierree’s body in its most hilarious moments of repetitive mime, striving for productive contact, failing (virtuosically) at co-ordination but producing a new image in the process.

Throughout the entirety of Room a stage-set of walls, floor and ceiling is artfully configured to reflect Thierrée’s shifting state of mind: often staggered and jostling, occasionally stable. Late in the show, as they teeter just for a moment towards forming a complete room, it appears that a settled ending may be near. But no sooner have they touched than they slip out of registration again, refusing any sense of completion. Perhaps for the Compagnie du Hanneton, to finish a work is to kill it.

ROOM by James Thierrée’s Campagnie du Hanneton
11 – 25 January 2023
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay, A Sydney Festival Event

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