February 20, 2014 6:06 pm

Festival Les Chiens de Navarre, Théâtre du Rond-Point, Paris – review

The French theatre group is staging its own deliriously strange festival
Les Chiens de Navarre in 'Une raclette'

Les Chiens de Navarre in 'Une raclette'

Delectably smart or appallingly vulgar: Les Chiens de Navarre are sitting on the fence, and show no sign of wanting to come down on either side. The theatre collective, founded by former actor Jean-Christophe Meurisse in 2005, has grown into a comedy phenomenon in France, and is currently staging its own festival at the Théâtre du Rond-Point. Une raclette and Nous avons les machines act as bold yet puzzling introductions.

Les Chiens’ improvisation-based works are a study in contrast and non sequiturs. Inspired by the Surrealists’ favourite game, the cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), the starting point is typically a mundane social event. In Une raclette a housewarming party brings neighbours together around the cheese dish, while in Nous avons les machines a small-town mayor and his team meet local groups to plan a fair.

The stage action soon spins out of control, however, into extreme, and coarse, physical theatre. A man in full medieval armour makes an appearance to start a bloody fight; elsewhere, the group suddenly morphs into an angry mob and sets about destroying a chair. In Les machines they then return in full green body paint and replay the local meeting as a galactic conference.

How you feel about an actor using his buttocks to mimic a phone call from an alien emperor may determine your reaction to Les Chiens. The eight-strong company revels in crude, outrageous pranks: among other delights, the two productions also offer attempted rape by a man dressed as a carrot, a masked orgy, and one naked actor climbing on front-row seats asking us to evaluate his testicles.

It’s self-imploding theatre, an act of gleeful artistic suicide, and the fact that Les Chiens manage to remain likeable through it all is a feat of sorts. In the more conventional scenes their parody of middle-class small talk is perfectly judged and full of witty in-jokes; the contrast between the minute comic timing of the dialogue and the chaos that follows is intriguing too.

Criticism is pre-empted in every work with more than a hint of derision. As Les machines starts, the audience is greeted by a woman wearing a wrinkled mask and a tousled red wig, who promptly takes off her knickers and snorts: “You don’t like it? That’s contemporary theatre, get used to it!” And Une raclette ends with a spoof post-performance Q&A, in which the troupe inhales helium and, in cartoonish voices, discusses “postdramatic theatre”. The parody is clever, but the questions still stand.




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