An elaborate construction of scaffolding and timber, an open-fronted house, sits on a high stage in the centre of the performance space. Lights dim, other low-lights glow. The house seems to have a life of its own, flickering and humming. A man – dark tousled hair, black jacket, white shirt – comes in, makes himself at home. He turns off some lights, turns on others, shakes a cloth out of a ‘window’, turns on the radio. French voices burble, the sound quality of an old-school transistor radio, slightly incoherent yet filling the space. The man’s shoes clatter on the wooden floor as he walks the length of his house and back again. He sits slumped in a chair with his back to us in the dim light, silhouetted. This low-key scene setting the mood of the piece is long, but we stay engaged. We know something is about to happen. Tension builds.
The change comes as the man opens up a trapdoor and disappears below the floor, and at that exact moment his doppelgänger bursts from a door high up on the wooden wall stage-left, careering down and bouncing up again to disappear back through the door. So yes, the floor is a trampoline. Well, this is a Mathurin Bolze show, so it would be, wouldn’t it?
The man and his shadow (or is it the shadow and his man?) are then engaged in a game of hide-and-seek or call-and-response. There are many ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moments. One appears, the other disappears – through the trapdoor, or through one of the many doors and windows built into the set. One stands by the back wall window, and we see his shadow outside. As Man One (or is it Man Two?) moves, and his shadow remains outside, we do a little double-take, our brains tricked even though we now know that there are two performers. Each in turn flies through the air, bouncing off the trampoline floor to take up a different vantage point on the set. As they move through the space, jackets go off and on seamlessly. We lose track of who is man and who is shadow.
The two men move into a different game. Now they are brothers, twins. They fall onto the trampoline in tandem, their moves synchronised perfectly. Now there’s another shift. One is shirtless, limp, lifelessly slumped, then cradled in the arms of the other, a Pieta moment. It turns nasty as the shadow is bundled away through the trapdoor. In one of the most beautiful images in the show, we see a figure trapped underneath the trampoline, struggling to escape – seen as a body shape pushing against the resistant fabric, then seen as a black shadow, legs flexed like a frog, as an intense light trained onto the trampoline transforms the image.
And so it plays out – the man and his shadow, the shadow and his man, sometimes rivals, sometimes brothers, but always two parts of one whole. Hans Christian Anderson’s eery story The Shadow – in which a man’s shadow replaces him in his life – seems to be an obvious point of reference, although not cited as such in the programme notes, which mention Dostoevsky’s The Double (which was published around the same time as Andersen’s tale – something obviously in the air in 1846) and Edgar Allan Poe. We are also told in those notes that Barons Perchés is a sequel to Mathurin Bolze’s seminal show Fenêtres, which was based on Italo Calvino’s novella The Baron in the Trees – a text which has inspired many circus-theatre creators over the years. Apparently, Bolze is now imagining his hero (a young nobleman who has decided to leave his family and live alone in the trees) split into a younger and older self. I didn’t see Fenêtres, but have to say that witnessing this sequel, I struggle with marrying up my knowledge of Calvino’s text with what I’m seeing onstage, although the doppelgänger, or shadow, or two-sided man motif is perfectly embodied. Let’s be clear – my quibble is not with the show itself, just with how it relates to the stated artistic inspiration. Best not to worry about such things, perhaps, and focus on what we see onstage!
And what we see is truly inspiring. The physical skill of both performers, Mathurin Bolze and Karim Messaoudi, is of the highest quality. Theirs is a delicious dance of bodies exploring every possibility of gravity, levity and resistance, using the trampoline, the set, and of course each other. In one minute they are hurtling on and off the trampoline at breathtaking speed, in another they are walking slowly along at ceiling height on top of the scaffolding, or poised in stillness like lizards on the open front wall, seen in silhouette.
The moodiness of the piece is broken up with the obligatory (in contemporary circus-theatre) loud and brightly-lit clowning moment – in this case, as the performers become a pair of rival birds, cockerels strutting and crowing. It feels a little like it is there to give the men a few minutes respite from the intense demands of trampolining rather than having any sound dramaturgical purpose, but we’ll allow them that!
The sceneography is beautiful – set design, lighting (which exploits the ‘shadow’ metaphor in every way it can) and the limited but effective use of video projection all working harmoniously to tell stories using pictures rather than words. And the sound design, by MPTA company member Jerome Fevre, is brilliant. How marvellous it is to see – and hear – a show in which sound, vision and physical action work so harmoniously together. The soundscape includes creaking cellos and melancholic piano lines mulched in with tweeting birds, chirping crickets, and the drone of the radio station. There is also live sound – a swanee whistle here, a dash of harmonica there – and the sound of the set itself features, as a clever mix of contact mics and one large ambient mic hanging from a light pendant pick up the bangs and thumps of bodies and objects hitting the trampoline or the scaffolding, turning the impact sounds into crashing cymbals or chiming bells. Throughout, the house feels to be as much of a character as the man and his shadow – but at this point in the show it really shouts its presence.
Barons Perchés is not a perfect show – there is the occasional slip in pace or tone, and I’m left with a few dramaturgical conundrums that bother me, such as: Why does the house appear to be moving through the landscape? Why are the men now wearing brightly coloured sports clothes? It is conceived, directed and performed by Bolze and could perhaps have benefitted from an outside director. Nevertheless, an excellent show. A marvellous merging of sound and vision, fantastic physical performance, and a thoughtful exploration of the ever-appealing doppelgänger theme.
Photo: Christophe Raynaud de Lage