Since moving to Norwich in my first year, I am ashamed to say that the Norfolk and Norwich Festival has always passed me by. For me, as I presume is the feeling among my fellow arts-inclined students, the festival in mid-May is all too regrettably tangled up in a frenzy of deadlines: before I’ve had a proper chance to extricate myself, time has moved on and the festival with it.
Knowing how this could well be my last year in the fine city, I resolved that 2019 would be the year I got thoroughly stuck in with NNF. I signed up as a volunteer and poured over the programme brochure as soon as I could get my hands on it, painstakingly selecting those events I felt would be truly unmissable. Bells & Spells was the top of my list and it did not disappoint.
In the brochure, the leading lady Aurelia Thierrée is shown opulently draped in a sheer beaded dress. Her body is in the act of draping too, pressed against a section of wall broken free of its proper place. One hand clasps an uneven edge, while the other rests tenderly in the hold of a coat hook. Though her face is turned away from the viewer, we can sense desire in her eyes as she meets the steady gaze of a military portrait. Woman and object are locked in a strange, sensuous embrace.
Bells & Spells is described in the NNF brochure as the surreal journey of ‘an incurable kleptomaniac who is at the mercy of the objects that she steals.’ While an entirely fair interpretation, for me, this description doesn’t quite do justice to the show’s particular lustre. Instead, I would argue that it invites the audience to continually re-evaluate who or what is ‘pulling the strings’ in each mystical scenario, and it was this I found so uniquely captivating.
The performance is directed by Aurelia’s mother, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin, and the show does indeed capture elements of a Chaplin-esque charm in its unabashed physicality and playfulness of humour; however, its ethereal style sets it apart as an entirely different mythic beast. While there is a strong element of traditional dramatic performance and physical comedy (almost entirely performed without speech), the story’s distinct vitality is summoned through its use of dance, ‘improvised’ use of props and puppets, and, most importantly, illusions.
In the blink of an eye, Aurelia has vanished amid the turns of a revolving door. Now she is transfigured into a bird, with only the aid of accoutrements in a cabaret cloakroom. Here she is swathed and swallowed in a world spilling over with the silk of a scarf she innocuously pilfered. While taking every opportunity to swipe the treasures that catch her eye, she also battles fiercely within the frames of historic paintings, levitates among laden washing lines, and gallops off on a bestial steed of coat stands. Nothing is as it seems, or perhaps this piece reveals a reality made up only of ‘seeming’. Through this surreal lens, the rules of how we relate to objects in our daily lives are shown as flexible or superficial, open to delightful bending if we would only grant ourselves permission.
It’s true that there were times when the ‘seams’ of the performance showed a little. As Aurelia has discussed in the Guardian, ‘Every single night something doesn’t work’, and there were indeed moments when illusions ran less smoothly. Despite this, in my view these stumbles and inklings of secret workings had their own charm. There is something profoundly endearing to me about illusions that throw you a wink and invite you to believe, rather than slickly deceiving.
Unfortunately for the residents of Norwich, Bells & Spells has now moved on to perform in Coventry and the cast will be touring across Europe for the remainder of the year. I eagerly await the Thierrée’s return to the UK. I would be delighted to watch the show again, or, additionally, to see the playfulness and ingenuity shown in Bells & Spells applied to a new venture.