The advantage of creating a silent theatrical show is that you can take it to audiences anywhere. Camilla Pessi and Simone Fassari of Switzerland’s Compagnia Baccalà, masters of the universal language of the body and face, have toured their two-hander Pss Pss to more than 50 countries on six continents, drawing rave reviews and top prizes for the multidisciplinary comic entertainment.
“We make music, we do balancing tricks, and there’s slapstick, juggling, trapeze, acting, and clown play,” says Pessi, reached on the island of Sardinia, and speaking in French. “Clown work, as here, often has no real narrative thread. Our two characters arrive in the theatre and discover there’s an audience—which they hadn’t expected—and they have to make something up. There’s a kind of crescendo to the piece, played out in the relationship between the characters. We don’t have male and female roles, or the traditional whiteface clown and the auguste. The roles interchange.”
After meeting at theatre school in 1998, Pessi and Fassari went their separate ways. But they got back together seven years later to form Compagnia Baccalà, based in Locarno, when Fassari’s artistic partner left and Pessi stepped in as replacement. From then until 2010 the two worked in circuses and cabarets, developing parts of Pss Pss. Pessi notes the differences between clown play in the theatre and in the circus ring. “In one the audience is right in front of you, in the other it’s 360 degrees or so around and you have to play larger. In theatre there’s room for greater subtlety in corporeal and facial expression, you can do more poetic things, and the pace can be slower.”
Pessi sees elements of both the traditional and the contemporary clown in the small company’s unique style of presentation. “We’ve kept certain old traditions, like those represented by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or [Swiss clown] Grock. We’ve renewed things in our own way to bring them closer to our on-stage characters.”
Pss Pss premiered at the celebrated Avignon Festival in France in 2011. The intention was to create a show that would appeal to people regardless of age, sex, culture, or class, and break down some of the clichés surrounding clowns and clowning.
“Too often the clown is associated with red noses, fright-wigs, and all that,” argues Pessi. “We wanted to defend our own approach, which is more like Chaplin and Keaton, who wore little makeup and had a great simplicity in their way of doing things. We wanted to get close to that simplicity, which is very potent and comes from character, and from relations with others and with objects. That’s why Pss Pss is a show that, at base, was born and developed for an adult audience—not because we’re naked, or doing things children aren’t allowed to see. What children will see is another layer of the show. And we invite adults to discover the world of clowning and clown personalities. It’s a universal spectacle, open to anybody.”
Pss Pss is at the York Theatre from Tuesday (February 20) to March 4.