Friday 26 August 2016

EIF 2016 – The Toad Knew at the King's, or, Not Quite Complete Beguilement

I hoped in advance that this show might be the equivalent of 2015's En avant, marche! or 2014's The War. There are magical moments, but it doesn't quite achieve the absolute power of either of those two shows, particularly in emotional terms.

Visually, Compagnie du Hanneton seems to me to fall into the same category of strongly visual European theatre occupied by such recent Festival visitors as Theatre du Soleil or The War. The set is very striking – a lotus like flower on complicated wires hanging in the air, a water tank, a spiral staircase and, most of all, the stunning toad creation at the end. However, it doesn't have quite the unfolding inventiveness, either in itself or in the performers engagement with it of the work of those two companies.

Those performers similarly provide beguiling moments. The highlight of the show for me was the breathtakingly beautiful movement of Valerie Doucet, who dances, tumbles, glides her way across the stage with an extraordinary illusion of weightlessness. Her water tank episode is also striking. As the show proceeds she became the character with whom I connected most strongly, and I rather wished that the later stages had afforded her a larger role. The other section I especially enjoyed was the slight of hand, physical comedy routine with the piles of plates.

But there are two related limitations which prevent this work from quite attaining total excellence. To differing extents the performers develop elements of character, but the other five are, finally, subordinate to the focus on James Thierree (also creator, scenographer and composer). There was for me more of a limit to Thierree's physical style than to Doucet, and the character in fact seems to have less far to go than some of the others. I recalled the magnificent Fringe circus show Flown from a couple of years back which brought more character to its aerial feats despite a simpler set. Related to this is the old question of narrative. There are fragments here – for example the desire to achieve some kind of relationship with the lotus like flower, and what relationship the red garbed singer Mariama has to the others. Yet ultimately this is a show of episodes, and not all episodes attain the level of Doucet's work. Obviously many in the audience didn't find this a barrier, but for me, as on other occasions it meant my emotional investment in proceedings was not complete, and my engagement ebbed and flowed.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of show which should always find space in the Festival. Seeing Doucet is worth the price of admission alone. Recommended then, but with reservations.

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