King’s Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival; 25th August 2016
The latest production from Compagnie du Hanneton is a theatrical wonder that builds on their reputation for exquisite spectacle. James Thiérrée, who founded the company in 1998 (and whose debut production went on to win four prestigious Moliere Awards) has genius of both skill and imagination, and The Toad Knew – or La Grenouille Avait Raison in its native form – is a beautiful and precisely constructed surreality.
Conception, scenography and original music have all sprung from Thiérrée himself and, as well as performing, he also directs. In all but the most exceptional of cases, this would prove a sure recipe for disaster, but Thiérrée is an exceptional man. An auteur. He sculpts and conjures for us a living art onstage, to be interpreted rather than understood.
Inside the King’s Theatre, amid plaster cherubs playing gilded flutes, a red velvet curtain, spattered and specked, spills over the stage front. The decline of the stately is an aesthetic that permeates The Toad Knew, offset by a futuristic machine that appears more organic as the show progresses – whilst the cast become steadily less human, subject to breakdowns seemingly more mechanical than biological.
That is, with exception of the Toad, a force portrayed by the robed singer Mariama, who appears to oversea this creation, and occasionally intercede. The chattering pre-show crowds are drawn to a hush by her earthy notes, punctuating the air in bursts, solidifying into wordlike sounds and, eventually, into recognisable words. The composition though, threaded through with classical strings and piano or the grinding of moving parts, is such that so much space passes between the words that there is no complete sense to grasp, only threads of ideas.
The music moves in and out of the pre-recorded and the live as, over the course of the show, piano, violin, lute and singer each find themselves subject to the illusory whims that dictate the world before us. While Thiérrée has long been held as an icon of New Circus, he must also be considered a forerunner of the more recent New Magic movement. Visual illusions too pepper the scene, both poetic and comedic.
Thiérrée himself is a masterful physical clown, and partners well with Yann Nédélec. Along with Samuel Dutertre and acrobatic dancers Valérie Doucet and Thi Mai Nguyen, they are all like cogs of a broader machine, or computer generated programmes that interact to disturb or support each other’s function. Their surface appearances of master, servant, lover, hunter and wild-child are like skins, masking the operations beneath that seem to revolve around the maintenance of the glowing contraption-life above their heads.
For the set is dominated by a mobile of glowing plinths in a geometric arrangement of different shapes and sizes, which move and light up or change colour as their wires are manipulated by unseen hands (at one point, I wonder if these too are an illusion and the parts are controlled by drone technology, but I can’t find any evidence of this). The company name for this seventh character is ‘the kaleidoscope‘, and it appears to feed through a tube of travelling lights connected to a pool of, one must suppose, some kind of scientific or magical substance that looks like water to be splashed through or slept in.
The title of the show comes from a childhood experience of Thiérrée’s in which he became convinced that a frog had spoken to him at the side of the road, imparting many secrets. The English translation of toad better summons thoughts of hallucinogenic jungle amphibians, which fits the tones of this strange encounter. But I do come away feeling I’ve been privy to a very special secret, even if I’m not exactly sure now what it was.