Rhum and Clay – a new theatre company to watch

On a bright Thursday morning, enthusiasm is infectious – even over the phone.  Speaking to Rhum and Clay’s co-artistic director, Julian Spooner, ahead of Friday and Saturday’s performances at the Pegasus theatre, you’d be hard-pushed not to be excited for A Strange Wild Song.

Originally performed by Bedlam Theatre in 2012, A Strange Wild Song takes its name from Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, and according to Julian, is equally bursting with childish play: “Clowning is perhaps the biggest influence on the piece from our training at Lecoq”, the famous French physical theatre school. ‘We play the children  as clowns. When you put on a clown nose for the first time, it’s all about being as open and naive with the audience as possible… Children accept everything, they’re less questioning and ironic. They freely delve into their own universe, and create a whole new universe”.

The play was originally inspired by a series of photographs taken by a Belgian photographer, Léon Gimpel, during the First World War. Children, dressed as soldiers, play war in the middle of occupied Paris. A child pretends to fly a plane, they stage a pretend execution. “At first, you laugh” Julian tells me, “but actually they’re horrible. This light and dark in the same place fascinated us. I remember I was interested in guns and war as a kid. It makes you wonder how natural it is for boys to want to fight. How natural it is for humans to fight each other… if it’s DNA or cultural.” Despite the clowning, and the Buster Keaton-Charlie Chaplain inspired physical comedy, this is a poignant and dark story at heart.

Like the theatre company Idle Motion, with whom Julian worked on Borges and I back in 2009, at the heart of Rhum and Clay’s style is the pleasure of visual trickery. Their narrative is a brand of Murakami-esque magic realism, where props create a “whole new universe” in imaginative visual spectacle. Inspired by the techniques of the theatre company Complicite, their narrative is made up of layered parallel stories, and the interaction of past and present. In A Strange Wild Song, a lost American soldier befriends and photographs children playing war in the middle of occupied France. Years later his grandson discovers the camera. This brief snapshot of childhood, imagination and war, becomes his window into the past. For Julian “the images come to life, as we invest emotion into the still image”.

The name “Rhum and Clay” holds memories of the company’s nights drinking cheap rum and making clay masks together in Paris: “the more rum we drunk, the worse the masks would get!” These masks they would then use as part of their training at L’École de Jacques Lecoq. Here, they would create work to show each week. If it wasn’t good enough, they’d be stopped by tutors: “this instilled us with the discipline to make everything as interesting as it could be…You learn to drop an idea when it it’s not working. We’re not precious about ideas”.

Julian feels they have a shared vision: they know what they think is good theatre, and what they’d want to watch, and create it. Fascinated by cinema and the visual, they plan to stage a homage to film noir next year. A company to watch.

Rhum and Clay’s production of A Strange Wild Song has just finished a run at the Pegasus Theatre, Oxford. Their UK tour continues until the end of November: more information and tickets available here.

PHOTOS/ Rhum and Clay Theatre Company