Theatre Review: Raoul

I have very little knowledge of theatre, and feel hideously underqualified to review it. But what the heck, I’m going to do it anyway.

But first a little background – particularly for those of you who are not in Australia. We’re currently slap bang in the middle of what Adelaideans call “Mad March” – the time where the city takes advantage of the pleasant Autumn weather and crams in as many activities as physically possible. Most of these events are held under the banner of the Adelaide Festival or the Adelaide Fringe, both huge arts festivals that together manage to take over (what feels like) the entire city for a few weeks each year.

For the past few days I’ve been volunteering as a live tweeter at Artists’ Week and Writers’ Week, which are both part of the Adelaide Festival (more on this in a future post). One of the perks of being a Festival volunteer is being able to pick up heavily discounted tickets for the coming evening’s shows.

During Mad March, choice paralysis is a real problem: there is so much on that it can be hard to decide what to go and see – especially if you don’t feel all that knowledgeable about the performing arts (and I don’t). It’s actually a good insight into barriers to visitiation, but I digress . . . 

This year, the buzz about town seemed to be about the show Raoul – I was hearing people saying it was one of the best things they had ever seen. That kind of endorsement, combined with the fact that I was able to get a very cheap ticket indeed, meant that going to see it was a no-brainer.

A Publicity Shot of "Raoul"

Raoul is a one-man show by French/Swiss performer James Theirree. In the production notes it says that Thierree has worked as a circus performer since the age of 4, which is clear from his acrobatic prowess, precision of movement and sense of comic timing.

The storyline of this almost dialogue-free performance is a little harder to distill – I saw one review that described it as a “philosophical exploration of one’s existence“, but I’d be lying if I said that I read anything that deep into it. For me it was more of a Dali-esque flight of fantasy, a journey into a slightly comic and absurd world filled with improbable creatures and everyday objects that had somehow acquired minds of their own. And then there is Raoul. Or should I say Raouls?

The plot, such as there is one, revolves around the battle for supremacy between different incarnations of Raoul. These different Raouls periodically challenge one another, their battles choreographed through a combination of theatrical effects, deft movements and a body double. There were audible gasps of amazement at the sudden appearance and disappearance of Raoul, and at times it really did seem like Thierree was managing to be in two places at once.

In between these battles-of-the-Raouls, each Raoul contends with recalcitrant props and the increasingly precarious state of his surroundings, combining acrobatics, dance, sound effects and physical comedy (sometimes executed with a knowing wink to the audience). He meets a flighty jellyfish, argues with a large fish, takes flight from a aggressive armoured bug, hangs out with a skeletal bird and cuddles up next to a ghostly elephant (all of these creatures realised through a combination of elaborate costume and puppetry).

The set design has a stripped down and deconstructed feel: the colour palette is muted and desaturated, comprising a backdrop of off-white sails and a central cage-like structure of metal poles. This rickety structure improbably support’s Raoul’s weight as he uses it as a climbing frame, even as it disintegrates before our eyes. By the end of the performance both structure and backdrop have disappeared, leaving a blank and black stage. At this point Raoul is lifted skyward to finish the show.

It is a testament to Thierree’s talent that this solo performance was able to keep an audience captivated for the best part of 100 minutes. And while during the show I periodically worried that there was some deeper ‘message’ that I was somehow failing to ‘get’, by the end of the show I was happy to simply enjoy the spectacle.

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