The Toad Knew by James Thierrée and his Compagnie du Hanneton is like a beautiful fairytale dream. The set is a miracle of fantasy, redolent of a setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a lair set deep in glittering woods in which Mr Thierree and five other performers seek to connect with a metaphysical, elusive spirit of nature but which evades classification or capture. This is while whatever his character is seeking to reject sticks to him no matter how hard he tries to separate himself, be it a violin or the woman he’s in a relationship with. This makes a most effective metaphor for a time but it goes on too long, the point having been before it’s left behind.
This pretty much describes the difficulty with the show. It could have been cut by thirty minutes from its ninety minutes (no interval), leaving its beauty and strangeness intact rather than being diminished as it was by enervating repetition.
Both the female dancers are superb and charismatic and their choreography, especially that of Thi Mai Nguyen, the aerialist, is magical at times in effect. Their male counterparts are, however, too single toned in pace although, with their individual talents they too create effects which are compelling to watch. The similarity in physicality between Mr Thierree and his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin is riveting and revealing, as what’s known from old film is viewed in contemporary life.
There’s slapstick humour which some of the audience appeared to greatly enjoy. Others not at all. Some members of the audience walked out, most particularly when the characters started communicating in a made up language.
The singer, Ofélie Crispin, has a wonderful voice of great resonance and she drifts through the stage forest as a fantasy figure, as if from a forgotten childhood fairytale, her crushed red velvet cape, becoming part of the phenomenal and imaginative opening of the show.
It’s all imagination is this show. If you can sit in it as if dreaming, not requiring narrative nor logic there’s beauty and whimsy and wonder sufficient to adjust your interior, just a little bit. There’s also the most fabulous creation of a monster fish, spilling over the edge of the stage, ethereal as an astonishing ghost.
Review by Marian Kennedy
The Toad Knew features six characters who emerge into a strange netherworld of steaming water, animalistic machines and sinister objects. A woman transforms into a lizard, a piano plays itself and plates miraculously appear and disappear. In the middle of it all, Thierrée works his magic with the aid of a servant, only to have it undone by a man beast. It all happens underneath a huge, glowing structure connected to the stage with a thick cord of knotted wires. The Toad Knew emanates from a dream world of buried fears and encapsulates Thierrée’s creative process.
Thierrée is renowned for conjuring worlds of endless invention and fantasy and inviting imaginations to soar. The creation of The Toad Knew began with the construction of the set, which took six months as the technical team experimented with each of Thierrée’s ideas. Thierrée’s original and only vision was to have an ominous structure floating above the stage which would have a talismanic quality. Only after the construction period was complete could the three-month rehearsal period with the performers begin, with each of them exploring the space and, in turn, influencing the stage design further.
An acrobat, magician, actor, clown and musician Thierrée is acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest and most creative contemporary circus performers. Perhaps this is inevitable coming from an impressive lineage of artists that includes his great-grandfather Eugene O’Neill and his parents’ French circus creators Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin – part of the Chaplin dynasty.
Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R
3 – 7 May 2017