(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/25; Photo:  The instrument of the human body … James Thierrée in Room. Credit: Richard Haughton.)

The circus star turns singer in his new show, Room, which is designed to embrace chaos. He talks about the mystery of theatre and his movie missions

In James Thierrée’s beguiling stage shows, the furniture has a life of its own: brasserie chairs duet with their sitters and velvet sofas gobble people up. So it is a little disconcerting to share a corner table in a Parisian cafe with this ringleader of the unexpected who is swivelling around in his seat. But Thierrée is just on the lookout for his morning coffee, he explains, swinging back with a raspy laugh.

Thierrée has the air of an inventor with his white jacket, round specs and floppy fringe of salt and pepper curls. His latest concoction is Room, which is on a European tour winding its way to the Edinburgh international festival (EIF) in August. By then, Thierrée explains, his Room will have been somewhat rearranged. “I never want them to be bored,” he says of the musicians and dancers who perform its loose-limbed melee of skits and tricks in a huge salon that is constructed before us on stage then promptly blown apart. “Every afternoon we switch a piece of music. I warned everyone it’s going to be moving all the time.” He assumes the roles of architect and director in the story, attempting to marshal his surroundings but constantly upended by them.

Thierrée’s visually arresting shows – including past EIF productions Tabac Rouge and The Toad Knew – usually come with threadbare plots. This time, the connection between musical instruments and the instrument of the human body was his starting point for an exploration of “the whim of pleasure and music and nonsense”. His pick ’n’ mix collection of performers arrived for rehearsals in 2020 only to return home the following day because of rising Covid cases. Now, he hopes the piece will chime with pandemic-weary audiences who want to let go a little – although the single-room setting is bound to prompt flashbacks to lockdown. “Those bloody walls!” he groans, remembering his spell of isolation.

In the absence of plot, he likes to give the audience a tempo. “We can follow a beat,” he says, explaining that we are not just creatures of intellect but of “rhythm and unconscious yearnings”. If there is a philosophy to the show, he says, it is to “embrace chaos”. Did he give his performers similar advice for the creation process? “I try to tell them it should be about their head, too. If all I do is direct my dream, it’s kind of a lonely process. I need their madness.” The production has become a cultural exchange of sorts: the musicians roam around the stage, guided by Thierrée, while he is singing on stage for the first time.

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