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Raoul - Xavier Sweeney

Raoul, designed, directed and performed by James Thiérrée at the Regal Theatre under the Baker Theatre Trust was an undeniably profound performance. I was rather trepidatious in approaching the performance, having been forewarned of the absurdist nature of the play and the confusion that was likely to ensue, however, my fears instantly subsided when I was greeted by a majestic, sprawling stage upon entering the theatre.  

With the beginning of the play, the audience, as one, assumed a state of awe, occasionally broken by what was perceived (by some more than others) to be hilarious. The actual narrative progression of the play, as intended by Thiérrée, was rather chaotic, the purpose of the events remaining a mystery to the majority of the audience. However, as with all absurdist plays, there is ample meaning to be conveyed, the playwright himself describing the play as an ‘exploration of dualities’ as the protagonist has ‘set out to explore the complex data of his dreams and nightmares’. It is apparent that Thiérrée intended to critique the nature of existence, whilst also allowing the audience to marvel at what can only be described as beautiful theatre. The physical drama of the piece was extremely effective, so effective that Thiérrée managed to construct an entirely tangible (or so it seemed) doppelganger, which I had assumed to be a different actor until told otherwise after the play. Through the employment of slapstick comedy and illusions, the play generates a unique style, balancing between the ineffable and alien as well as the light-hearted and entertaining, ensuring that the meaning it offers as a performance is available to all.

The acting by Thiérrée, the soul character of the play, was extremely effective. The character of Raoul was constructed with almost no use of verbals, the effective characterisation that allowed Thiérrée to embody curiosity, exploration and joviality achieved through careful manipulation of physical movement and facial expression. The pace of movement remained in a state of flux, seamlessly oscillating between a serene, surrealist slow motion, to a frantic and upbeat display of vigour. This contrast between Raoul’s two states of existence reinforced the concept of dualities, as well as the dominant analogy to the ambiguity of life as a learning journey. Ensuring that audience engagement was still a feature of the play, Thiérrée indulged in facial expression and gesture to cement the humanistic features of the character and as a result, heighten audience receptivity. The realisation of the physical aspects of the character also served as a way in which the audience could attach themselves to the play, rather than becoming lost in the world of absurdism that had been created. The relationship between Raoul and himself was exceedingly interesting, almost inheriting a primeval, instinctive nature as he attempting to defend his territory (whether this was physical or mental property is open for interpretation), whilst also embracing the voyeuristic pleasure that the audience sought to gain from a display of such practice, resulting in flawless performance.

The stage of the play was a simple proscenium arch stage, although the way in which this stage was employed was entirely creative and liberating, the conventional features of a drama stage being surpassed by the play. The fragility of the typical stage was delightfully ignored, the large metal bars that formulated the tent of Raoul‘s home mindlessly cast aside, suggesting a possible fragmentation of Raoul’s mental existence, as well as indulging in the destructive nature of the action for the enjoyment it provided. The rigidity of a conventional proscenium arch stage was also bypassed, the fluid movements of the large sails providing an arena in which the performance was encased, these walls often surging forth or receding into the shadows to enhance the mood of the performance, as in the breath taking initiation of the play, where the sails, initially hanging limp, surged forth and construct an entirely new area. The staging was tremendously effective in depicting a landscape, not entirely literal or physical, capturing the random and arcane nature of the absurd universe through its ability to transform and shift of its own volition.

The set design of the play despite was both complex and simple simultaneously, simple in its physical appearance, which appeared to be a conglomerate of metal poles, but complex in its meaning. The tent itself inherited human characteristics, expelling emotions and even shaking in fear after its more traumatising deconstruction experiences, this personification an undeniably absurd quality. The tent also came to represent the subjectivity of the physical, with what appeared to be a sturdy structure collapsing, and as seen in the picture above, deforming throughout the play. The set was decidedly ominous through its deformations and irregularities, Raoul’s adventure of discovery in regards to the unknown clearly an aspect explored throughout the play. Through the use of the puppets that became symbols for the alien and indefinite, Raoul’s ensuing interactions with them drew clear parallels to the nature of discovery in the human universe. These profound statements serve as Thiérrée’s vessel through which to convey the absurdist philosophies to the audience, whilst also maintaining their aesthetic appeal. 

The props used in the play were largely tools through which the physical drama of the play could be displayed, much to the audience’s enjoyment. A particular prop that I personally believed to be both effective and clever was the circular mirror, the reflection of the mirror adding to the creation of the ‘second Raoul’, whilst also constructing some engaging visual elements (specifically, the way in which Thiérrée interacted with his reflection) and then finally being implemented as a device through which deception was again achieved, baffling the audience as Thiérrée disappeared from stage while his stage puppet seamlessly assumed his guise. The lighting and sound of the play were also used to great effect, at one point assisting in the demolition of the fourth wall, as Raoul gained control over these elements in a particularly interesting scene. Through acknowledging the presence of the audience the play inherited Brecht’s ‘Epic Theatre’ characteristic of alienation, this in turn allowing the audience to appreciate the manipulation of the physical universe and the social comment this provides. 

When the individual elements of Raoul combine through the practised and resultantly fluid acting of James Thiérrée, what is divulged is more than just a play, the performance becoming an exploration of the unknown, the abnormal, the absurd. The artistic pursuit of Thiérrée as the playwright resulted in the emergence of a phenomenon, the ability of the audience to connect on an emotional level before they understand the text. Clearly the result of several hours of conceptualising artistic visions, practicing and experimenting, Raoul was a truly unique experience that left every audience member thinking, and, to some degree, confused. More than a fine display of absurdist theatre, more than a fine display of theatre itself, Raoul became a fine display of human achievement.