When we were little, clowns had white faces and big shoes, and made balloon animals at birthday parties. I hate to say it, but Ronald McDonald probably epitomises what clowns were to us as kids. Then around secondary school, whilst the clowns retained the white faces we gained that oh-so-fashionable phobia of the kitsch entertainers – think Stephen King’s It. But thanks to an achingly funny show I saw recently by Le Navet Bête, I have discovered that clowning as a form of physical theatre has been seriously revitalised, and there isn’t a balloon animal in sight.
Le Navet Bête are a company that constitute a return to (as well as a revamping of) the origins of clowning as a theatrical art, embodying elements of commedia dell’arte, buffoonery and political satire as well as a level of lewdness that would make Sacha Baron Cohen cringe. Commedia dell’arte is probably the oldest of the influences that 21st century clowning draws upon, in terms of its stock characters, physical caricature and scandalous satire. Jacques Lecoq, who Le Navet Bête admire as an influence, drew on commedia dell’arte in his physical theatre. Starting out as a gymnast and continuously intrigued by the relationship between sport and theatre, Lecoq’s contribution to clowning as a predominantly physical theatre is obvious. His fascination with the movement of the body through space and its communicative power has pervaded clowning today, as is evident in the spectacular acrobatics and athleticism of Le Navet Bête’s show ‘Serendipity’. He insisted on performers wearing masks in order to heighten the importance and awareness of the body, and these would be reduced to the red noses that characterise clowns today. Lecoq’s trainee and assistant Philippe Gaulier added buffoonery to the mix, or the French tradition of ‘bouffon’ entertainment. According to Gaulier, this tradition was that lepers, homosexuals, and disabled people were banished from French communities until festivals at which these ‘ugly people’ would be expected to perform – satirising the rich and beautiful people that humiliated them. This tradition contributes to the crudeness of contemporary clowning, and the grotesque physical appearance of Le Navet Bête’s clowns – some dodgy camel-toe looks and a lot of lycra – whilst they brilliantly and mercilessly mock you.
The jokes have evolved into the 21st century, yet retain the crucial undercurrent of social satire that is painfully raw but irresistibly hilarious – the audience are led through ‘Serendipity’ by Hans, an evil German paraplegic in a bowler hat who sings his plans of world domination seated at a piano the size of a laptop computer. With its diverse history and socio-political agenda, clowning is now my new favourite ‘serious and grown-up’ circus entertainment, and what appears to be a sharply relevant form of theatre. So however phobic you might be, I recommend giving the unicycling freaks another chance.