Having trained in Paris, physical performer Jude Quinn applies a European sensibility to his latest work confronting the events of January 7, 2015 and the Charlie Hebdo massacre
In France, newspaper headlines like 'La Liberté Plus Forte Que La Terreur' ('Freedom Stronger Than Terror') are gradually giving way to more considered reflections on notions of individual thought and freedom of expression.
One by one, the same people who carried placards proclaiming Je Suis Charlie are now quietly admitting that what happened in a quiet street near the Place de la Bastille on January 7, 2015 was appalling and unpardonable, but that attitudes have since changed, with many now proclaiming, Je ne suis pas Charlie (I am not Charlie).
Performer Jude Quinn trained in Paris at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq and returned there last year to take a course with the renowned clown master, Philippe Gaulier. As a result, Quinn approaches his original stage work from an instinctively European angle.
He knows Paris well; he is passionate about its long tradition of absurdist theatre. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the world-shattering sequence of events that began with the massacre of 11 people in the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, by two Islamist terrorists should have informed his latest piece.
Building on his deliciously subversive alternative Christmas show, Thank F*ck It’s Christmas, Quinn and his actor/director wife, Gemma Mae Halligan – under the umbrella of their company Amadan – have together crafted a piece that is as amusing as it is disturbing, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
Laughter erupts at the first glimpse of Quinn’s spindly fingers, groping their way across the stage like an outsized spider. Ditto when a long, skinny leg and bare foot appear through the side curtains, searching in thin air for solid ground. Then, little by little, the full picture emerges and the grotesque figure of the Imp sidles into view. At this point, the audience is in near-hysterics as much at the vision itself as in its evident admiration and affection for this terrifyingly gifted player.
Halligan’s costume design encases the Imp in shiny, skin-tight black lycra. He is shaped like a bulbous, over-inflated blot, his little head and ever-changing facial expressions peeping out through a space beneath a gruesome humped back and protruding belly. The physical brilliance of his performance skills endow his body and head with independent life and movement, frequently at odds one with the other.
There are no spoken words. Instead, the Imp scrawls the occasional scant word of guidance as to the direction his weird imagination is about to take on a placard. A masterclass in mime technique follows – including a mischievous version of Marcel Marceau’s famous glass wall – creating a gallery of characters and situations that will, in turn, prompt a succession of mocking, cruel, pathetic and lascivious actions.
None are spared the attention of the Imp, who, while registering as an outlandish one-off caricature is, in fact, longing to be a part of some kind of communality of thought or action. From a seated perspective, one should be afraid. Very afraid.
His eyes glittering, his face gaunt and grimacing, the Imp climbs into the audience, pilfering and ransacking personal belongings, disrupting seating arrangements, manhandling and groping, before hitting on a single unfortunate individual, who is led on stage and forced to take part in a humiliating series of rituals.
It is a risky strategy, from both points of view, but Quinn is rewarded on this occasion with a game associate, a good-humoured, bearded young man whose obliging interventions add considerably to a section of the performance that might otherwise feel overlong and unfocused.
The words on the placard wind their way inexorably towards the Charlie Hebdo climax, with the Imp in his element as he conducts the audience in a chorus of unanimous approval. The coup de foudre takes the form of a rapid-fire reprise, firing us backwards to where it all began, to the sound of Pulp’s 'Common People'.
The Imp is clearly a work in progress and some pruning and reshaping will help to clarify and accelerate the more abstract segments. But, equally, in the hands of this accomplished, confident performer, it contains many moments of wonderful theatrical daring.
There is no company in Northern Ireland currently producing theatre of this kind and, as in his previous work with the children's company Cahoots NI, no single performer possessed of a vision that sails quite so close to the wind. One of the common people the Imp emphatically is not. Thank goodness.