“No amount of programme notes can prepare you for an experience that is like being locked inside someone else’s dream,” wrote the critic Lyn Gardner after seeing one of James Thierrée’s astonishing shows. This, after all, is a theatremaker who fuses circus, mime, magic, music and dance to create a hybrid that is as unique to him as your dreams are to you.

And naturally, when it comes to dreaming, Thierrée likes to do things his own way. That’s why, from acting to set design to plotting the lights, he is deeply involved in every aspect of what we see on stage.

“It’s exhausting,” he laughs. “It’s like if someone asks you, ‘What did you dream last night?’ But you lived through something very specific in your sleep and you’re not going to have anyone saying, ‘No, but at that point, the cat –’ No, excuse me, it’s my dream! With my work it’s the same thing. I have a very intense feeling about what I want to put on and I just want to see it, feel it and hear it.”

Because of this, it seems like a futile task to describe his latest show The Toad Knew (or, in French, La grenouille avait raison) which has its UK première at the Edinburgh International Festival. Just as it’s impossible to give a full account of one of our own dreams, so this beguiling spectacle remains tantalisingly out of reach. “I’m always playing with meaning,” he says. “I don’t want meaning and I’m searching for meaning – both things!”

If ever he feels the urge to explain a story, he feels a simultaneous urge to deny there is one. Perhaps you will plot your own narrative, but he’s not going to impose one on you. Instead, he suggests, we should “give up the necessity to understand exactly who these people are and what these characters are doing.”

So we could talk about the floating platforms above the performers’ heads, glowing in reds and greens. We could mention the self-playing piano with a mind of its own; the mesmerising blues singer who is nearly-but-not-quite a narrator; and the enormous white toad that seems to offer release from a subterranean prison. But still the exact meaning slips through our fingers.

Easier, perhaps, to talk about the range of influences that feed into the show. When it comes to pedigree, Thierrée is showbiz royalty. His great-grandfather was the American playwright Eugene O’Neill and his grandfather was Charlie Chaplin. The silent movie star would surely have recognised the clowning techniques and funny routines that weave in and out of the 90-minute performance.

Chaplin would also have appreciated a show in which darkness is as important as light. The Toad Knew can be silly but it can also be haunting and strange. “I like things to mingle and fuse into one atmosphere,” he says. “You don’t feel, ‘Oh, she’s the dancer and he’s the acrobat.’ I express myself more with mime and comic burlesque physicality, but I don’t see the separation between the different techniques. I see it more like aspects of the personality. The set is melancholic with a dark undertone, so the humour is a good glue.”

As the son of circus performers, Thierrée had been performing for years before he even knew who Chaplin was. The greater influence on his work is the high wire, the trapeze and the big top, albeit filtered through a steampunk aesthetic that recalls the cinematic dreamscapes of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and David Lynch. In this, he is part of a generation of ‘new circusʼ makers who are putting the old skills in a more artful setting.

“I have a lot of affection for traditional circus,” he says. “I like the madness and the crazy physical stunts. New circus is interesting if it’s well done, if it’s not pretentious. You have to be smart to give it intellectual depth. I am part of this circus, yet I have a nostalgia for the traditional circus. My affection shows itself in The Toad Knew. Maybe that’s going to stop me becoming a respected theatre creator!”

Words: Becky Donne

Picture: Hugues Anhés

The Toad Knew, King’s Theatre, 24–28 August, 8pm

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