What does Daughter co-creator and performer Adam Lazarus have in common with professional sportsman Jacques Lecoq, Arthur Fleck, and the comedy-monster Red Bastard? Unless the other three have secret penchants for bulbous lycra costumes – the answer is Bouffon. But what is bouffon? And why use it in a show about toxic masculinity and gendered violence?
Image description: Red Bastard, a person wearing an all-in-one red lycra costume including a balaclava over their head, white face paint with red around the eyes, and several bulges over their stomach and abdomen, lies on their back, grinning, waving their legs in the air. If this description makes them sound truly terrifying, it’s because they are.
Bouffon – a French word, but one you might recognise as it’s where the English word “buffoon” comes from – is otherwise known as an anti-clown. An inverted clown, if you like, that blends grotesqueness with charm. The audience laughs at a clown, but it’s the job of a Bouffon to mock the audience. So in recent years, Bouffon has gathered a reputation for showing off the darker side of clowning. It gets personal. It says the unsayable. It parodies things the audience holds dear, and makes them question who they should really get behind.
A key element of the Bouffon is their physicality – whether it’s through stuffing their clothes or contorting their bodies, alternative postures provide interesting ways of moving, and new perspectives on the world.
Even if you’ve never taken a punt on a Paris-trained clown at the Edinburgh Fringe, you’ll be familiar with some sort of Bouffon. Some people are seeing a renaissance of the form in this year’s most CGI-free superhero movie, Joker. The blog Learning Through Theatre says: “The Joker is the classic bouffon who laughs at his audience as they become increasingly confused and when the time is right for the uprising, he flips the table…He is at once grotesque and beautiful; obscenely violent and intensely moving. The Joker may take the guise of the clown, but he is no clown. The mask disguises the pain and anger that is mounting at his core, caused by those who reject him, deny him and laugh at him, but the last laugh is his.” This idea of the Bouffon being someone cast out by society, where people initially laugh at the grotesqueness before becoming scared of it, is also a plot point in a much more family friendly film: in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo wins a competition and is celebrated when the crowd think his appearance is a costume. When it’s real, he becomes a danger.
Image description: A still from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. A crowd looks on while Quasimodo is restrained by ropes and pelted with tomatoes, wearing a jester’s crown. If this scene upsets you, try playing the film’s soundtrack in the background, it’s objectively the best music Disney ever did.
By now, Bouffon beginners might have some clue as to why the form is so suited to a show like Daughter, where a man starts with the audience on side, and bit by bit, they grow to see him as a monster. For Adam Lazarus, creating a subtle bouffon was something really new. “I got to a point where I wanted to make a piece that was stripped of the extreme masks of the bouffon form. I wanted to create a monster that was more subtle and relatable”, he said in an interview with Theatre Weekly. Like in Joker, someone that starts as a figure of sympathy turns into someone with the power to manipulate and mock the audience that pitied them. “In the bouffon form, the laughter in the room says a lot about the person. It reveals where you are complicit with the joke, against the joke, where the joke is beyond you.” Lazarus doesn’t want to take the audience with him, but see where they get to on their own. And if Bouffon can win Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar, who knows where we’ll see it next?
Clowning about. Image description: Adam Lazarus, wearing jeans, trainers, a blue hoodie, fairy wings and a pink headband, kicks one leg in the air and sticks his tongue out.
Now you’re an expert in Bouffon, come and see it in practice. Book your tickets to Daughter, at Battersea Arts Centre 3 – 28 Mar.