A footloose and fancy free woman is seen in a succession of dreamscape settings. She climbs the walls of abandoned buildings, enters empty apartments, and finds herself immersed in other people’s stories – acting out snippets of lives that are not her own. She is a kleptomaniac time traveller, moving through time and space with gay abandon, at the mercy of the objects she steals…
Victoria Thierrée Chaplin is the creator of Bells and Spells, receiving its UK premiere at the Norwich Theatre Royal, for one night only, as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2019 (following on from a work-in-progress showing at Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill in 2018). Victoria is the daughter of the legendary clown and acrobat Charlie Chaplin; wife and accomplice of new circus pioneer Jean-Baptiste Thierrée; mother of circus-theatre makers James and Aurélia Thierrée – and a renowned artist in her own right, creating design-led work in which scenography and dramaturgy are inextricably linked. Here, she teams up once again with a family member – this time daughter Aurélia. The two had previously worked together on Aurélia’s Oratoria, but on this show, Victoria gets the main billing as the lead artist/creator of the concept and mise-en-scene.
There are some extraordinary visual images, as you would expect from Victoria Thierrée Chaplin. Glorious costume and set design, superb quick-change skills, and some deft magical illusions combine beautifully to give an ever-evolving visual landscape. Walls of all sorts – static, encroaching, morphing from one thing to another – are a recurring motif, as are doors (revolving or otherwise). Pictures come to life, mirrors reflect distorted images. The woman merges into the wallpaper or magically disappears from behind a flapping sheet, and dresses on mannequins are somehow switched to a differently coloured dress before our astonished eyes. Tablecloths are whipped away leaving table-settings intact. In more surreal sequences (surreal in the general sense, and in the sense of directly referencing key surrealist images): a dog’s head finds itself moving across the stage to land on a person’s body, white nightdresses become sheep, and fur coats become wild beasts. A bunch of hatstands morph into a a fabulous creature, and shining chandeliers become heads nodding in the darkness.
And there is more! Aurélia is not alone onstage! Dancer Jaime Martinez is a wonderful foil – he tangos with her, and this then morphs exquisitely into a louche solo tap number. The two dance (literally and metaphorically) around each other throughout the whole show, playing a cat-and-mouse game of absence and presence.
It is slightly odd that the original French title of the show, Murmures des Murs, has been changed to Bells and Spells, as this show is so much about murmuring walls! The sound design is another wonderful element of the production, with ‘noises off’ and the heard-through-walls music adding to the dream-like quality of the piece. Everything is off-centre, off-kilter, and the notion of onstage-offstage is played with throughout. Offstage, out of sight, behind the door, beyond reach… Who is on the inside looking out, and who is on the outside looking in?
A truly mesmerising show – a feast for the eyes, and a clever conundrum for the brain, as we desperately try to make sense of what we are seeing! Bravo, Victoria and Aurelia – another grand success.