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.