Mime clown Nola Rae
The MBE talks Napoleon, Marceau and the English sense of humor
Posted: July 27, 2011
It is somewhat apt that an interview with mime artist Nola Rae has to be moved away from the bar of Divadlo v Celetné, as she can't be heard properly above the hubbub.
One half expects Rae to start acting out her replies, but it isn't to be. Resettled in a quiet stage corridor, she begins to discuss, in hushed, genteel tones, her latest show, Exit Napoleon Pursued by Rabbits, a one-woman send-up of dictatorships via the medium of silent clownery she performed in Prague during the International Festival of Outdoor Theater and Clownery.
Born and raised in Australia, Rae, who is in her early 60s, began working in mime in the mid-1970s after a brief stint as a ballet dancer, but it wasn't until an audience member suggested she write a piece about Rasputin that she began to consider taking on evil characters.
"It got me thinking about evil charisma. Rasputin, of course, had this in abundance," she said. "I read a lot about Rasputin, and my jaw dropped many times because it was an extraordinary story."
Born: Sydney, Australia
Lives: South London
Inspirations: Charlie Chaplin, Marcel Marceau, Margot Fonteyn
Brush with royalty: MBE for services to drama and mime, 2008
Exclusive memberships: International Clown Hall of Fame, 2000
From there, Rae's research had her traverse the despicable lives of Stalin, Hitler and Mao, until she finally hit upon Napoleon.
"I decided on Napoleon mainly because he was the dictator everyone accepted," Rae says. "In a way, he was the most extraordinary one."
Situated in an abandoned tent in deepest Russia, Rae's comedy sees her dictator start out as an army cook who has been left behind from a military retreat. The play explores what Rae describes as the usual patterns of a dictatorship: the defeated outsider who steps into a political vacuum, claims it to be destiny and transforms himself into a godhead. Not long after, cracks begin to show, paranoia sets in, and the whole thing collapses before his eyes.
"Every tragedy is ridiculous," Rae says. "So that's why in this particular show I try to bring it out. It's much easier to make a comedy out of a tragedy than the other way round."
Teasing out comedy from the blackest of sources would seem to be something of a fascination of Rae's. In the past, she has turned four of Shakespeare's tragedies into works of comedy. In fact, one could find elements of tragedy in all of Rae's comedies: Mozart's decline into poverty and an early grave is the subject of Mozart Preposteroso, while in Elizabeth's Last Stand, a confused elderly woman (whom Rae cites as being based on her grandmother) begins to believe she is Queen Elizabeth I.
Exit Napoleon Pursued by Rabbits is not the first time a dictator has been lambasted by a work of comedy. Perhaps most famous is Charlie Chaplin's portrayal of Adenoid Hynkel (a thinly disguised Hitler) in the 1940 film The Great Dictator. The film ended up earning Chaplin a place on the Führer's Jewish hit list, notwithstanding the fact that Chaplin was not actually Jewish.
Alongside Chaplin, Rae holds in high regard the slapstick artists of the golden age such as Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.
"And Jacques Tati, because he would lead you one way and then surprise you by going another way. That is so French," she says.
Away from comedy, the mime looks up to the eminent ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Rae did, after all, begin her artistic career as a ballerina, and for some time struggled to choose between a career of dance or mime, until she received a pivotal piece of advice-cum-backhanded compliment.
"A friend said to me, 'Listen, I can't see you as a ballet dancer. But I think you'd make a very good clown,' " she says.
Studying with a master
Rae's other great inspiration was a man she had the honor of studying under: Marcel Marceau, with whom she worked for five months in Paris. Rae now recalls the master as "inspiring as a teacher but a bit scatty."
"The best thing about Marceau was that he was performing, too. In the evenings, we could go and see him as many times as we wanted to, sit downstairs, upstairs, in the wings - I'd see him from every angle," she says. "I think I saw him about 30 times, and I saw something new each time."
At this point, the interview is halted again, as a stagehand shifts Rae from the chair she's sitting on and hands her another, this one tagged with a "7." Rae quips that it is one of her favorite numbers - a swift demonstration of how gracefully she can make light of any situation.
Having traveled the globe with her productions, Rae reasons that everyone appreciates mime in different ways. In the earlier days of her career, she recalls the Norwegian audiences "killing themselves" with laughter, while she also finds Brazilians and Columbians to be very appreciative of her genre. The English, meanwhile, prove the toughest crowd and harshest critics.
"I think the English are very discerning with their comedy," Rae says. "I think they believe themselves to be connoisseurs. If you get a laugh out of an English audience, you feel you've done well."
But being an artist who predominantly deals in silent comedy, does Rae ever feel she could have raised a heartier laugh had she substituted mime or clownery for words?
"During a production of Romeo and Juliet with a partner, we came to an impasse," Rae says. "We sat around thinking, 'How can we do this? Why can't we just say it?' We managed, in the end, to get over this. Often the less you say, the better it is."
Will Noble can be reached at
Tags: mime, mime artists, nola rae, marcel marceau, czech republic, czech, interview, australian.
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