Designed, Directed, and Performed by James Thiérrée
- St James Theatre, 14 March, 8pm
Raoul is a terrible voyage into solitude: a captivating, heart-breaking one-man expedition into the polar regions of the mind. From its haunting stage set, draped in Arctic white, to the eerie doppelgänger-figure who emerges from the dark at the opening of the play to violate the protagonist’s isolation, this is a performance rich in uncanny, unsettling, and obscurely moving imagery. It is powerful and elemental: the protagonist – whose name seems to be the feral cry ‘Raoooooul!’ – is a poor, bare, forked animal. His only refuge (or prison?) is a ramshackle hut made of pipes, which he inhabits like a ghost in the machine, and which shudders and shivers in sympathy with its occupant. His isolation violently broken in the opening minutes, there follows over the course of the performance the gradual disintegration of this cabin accompanied by the breakdown and gradual revival of its inhabitant.
Any description of the action risks sounding glib and clichéd, in part perhaps because – for all its sophistication – there is a real simplicity at the heart of the production. Nevertheless, there is layered upon this structure a range of nightmarish images that defy any simple interpretation. Perhaps most strikingly, four gorgeous animals slither out of the darkness like emanations of the unconscious mind: a gregarious catfish, a hostile silverfish, an exquisite jellyfish, and what I can only describe as a sort of woolly mammoth. Each forms some kind of relationship with the protagonist, further eroding his solitude, but each defies any simple interpretation. These are signifiers without clearly identifiable meanings. How much you enjoy the performance will depend in large part on how willing you are to accept this play of evocative but enigmatic dream-like images.
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That is not to say that there are not themes which emerge out of the performance: embodiment, identity, the recognition of the Other are all explored in different ways (these, at least, are the themes that struck me most forcefully). If these all sound terribly intellectual and serious, however, audiences need not fear: Raoul is a terrific spectacle, full of delightful and astonishing scenes. James Thiérrée’s background includes work as a trapeze artist, a musician, and a clown, in addition to theatre work, and his incredible range of skills is fully exploited in this production. While there was plenty of clever stagecraft on show, it is Thiérrée’s physical versatility and his expressive use of the body in motion that seems to me to be the most emotionally powerful aspect of the whole performance. And if Thiérrée’s expressive physicality leaves audiences thinking about the body and the soul – the crumbling cabin and the exposed occupant within – so much the better.
Some of the most moving scenes depict the silent protagonist’s response to music: a beauty which breaks through solitude and helps to establish a fragile connection with other creatures in the absence of words. This, surely, is part of the function of art. Perhaps it is true that we are each irremediably alone, but an artwork as powerful as Raoul might at least help us all feel a little bit less lonely.
I should adore Raoul – it’s wacky, it fans the flames of my nerdery, and it’s shiny – but I didn’t. What I can definitely say about the production is that Thiérrée is an incredibly talented, incredibly beautiful man; this performance was entrancing, the sets were magnificent, and the music was awesome. No, what I grates is something deeper, something more visceral.
The problem with Raoul is that it lacks coherence. While such incoherence may benefit a production, in this case it seemed unintentional rather than a planned aspect of the show. Yes, it is beautiful but it is also a desolately dark, deeply disturbing production that is very hard to comprehend. Part of this problem arises because whilst in the reality Thiérrée creates for us we are alienated from the intellectual but once the reality becomes experience we are alienated from the emotional; there is no way in, no way to snip a thread to unravel the bonds of meaning.
Raoul’s neat little home appears to be the cone of a volcano. A construction of crystalline growths, glowing oranges/reds, and the deep, primal thrum of earth’s molten juices eager to erupt. Immediately, the set screams we are somewhere inside, somewhere under. Raoul proceeds to guide the audience into his lower regions, so to speak. He is intensely alone and agoraphobic. The physical jokes were so highly repetitive – and carried to such an extent – that they were not so much funny as they were profoundly sad; this is a man who finds solace in repetitive, compulsive movements. We understand all to well the frustration of not being able to find a comfortable position in which to read a book but watching Raoul struggle leaves one in an odd position of being both irked and feeling sympathetic.
The aesthetics of Raoul were not enough to make up for its lack of meaning. Reading the programme after the show made it make a lot more sense. A production should, however, stand on its own. I’m still not sure whether Raoul stands or falls. I do, however, know that it gave my reviewing buddy and I a good half-hour of arguing over the merits (him) or lack thereof (me) in the production. It is an argument that neither of us won. Simply that we had at all must count in favour of the show. There must be something under the isolation and desolation. Rauol will take you into the dark places of the world but you may not like what you will find.
Rauol runs 14, 16-18 March at 8pm.