Slava Polunin lives in a world where childhood fantasy meets reality, but his wisdom cannot be denied, writes Diane Parkes.
A man looking suspiciously like Father Christmas offers his hand as he steps onto a floating platform sitting on a river and topped with plastic grass.
Beckoning me to follow, he lands on his wooden construction, which bears an antique looking chair and is powered by a motor.
“Would you like to come onto my raft?” he asks.
In any other situation I would probably run a mile but the bewhiskered and twinkle-eyed gentleman in front of me is Slava Polunin and I have entered his world.
A clown since his teens, Russian-born Slava has toured the world with Slava’s Snowshow, a travelling fantasy which has entranced millions by blending comedy, magic, pathos, music and spectacle.
With it due to return to Birmingham Hippodrome in November, I have been invited to speak to Slava in his home, the Moulin Jaune, or Yellow Mill, on the outskirts of Paris.
But if I was expecting a neat little apartment, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Slava lives in a converted mill sited in 20 hectares of land which is just as fantastical as nearby Disneyland.
Each part of the 12th century building has been lovingly created as its own miniature world and the grounds are full of oddities such as travelling gypsy caravans, upturned boats and imported Korean tea houses.
And this raft.
We are no sooner standing on it than one of Slava’s sons hops on to power the motor and off we go, floating upstream towards an Oriental-looking country villa and a huge glass sphere used as a garden seat.
As we pass a double-decker oven-looking construction I ask what it is.
“I don’t know,” chuckles Slava. “Some artists came for a festival and they built it. It is whatever you want it to be.”
Which pretty much sums up Slava’s universe. We are all capable of huge feats of the imagination, if we just allow ourselves to go with the flow. “A clown is trying to protect what is essential for the soul of humanity,” he says. “I have changed and grown older but I am still a small child. I had dreams as a child and I still have those dreams.
“I prepared my show for adults because I am of the opinion that children are happy anyway. It is the adults who need help. I am putting on a world of children for adults.
“The show is the ideal vehicle to see how I live. Although the show has its plots and its scenarios this is not very important for me. For me the play is there for me to meet the public. That is the reason.
“So, for example, I am putting on a red clown’s nose for the play but there is no reason. It is just a way of expressing ourselves in public.”
Slava, who admits to recently having passed 60, is a philosopher clown who is firmly placed in a long theatrical tradition.
“The clown has survived as a tradition in Russia. The Russians love this tradition, just as the English and the Italians do. In Russia we have this idea of the little fool who suffers but is also a clown. It has lasted hundreds of years but I think we have lost the poetry of the clown. We have kept the technical prowess but it has lost its soul.
“In England, the tradition of the clown has been popular in the music halls and it permeates everything. I think you see it in Monty Python.”
Slava is well-placed to speak about English traditions as he trained in theatre skills in London.
“When I wanted to figure out and understand theatre and culture I went to London,” he says. “It was an easy decision to go there as it offered the best opportunity to study theatre. If you compare it to other creative cities such as Berlin or Amsterdam it is the one to go to because it has several times more theatres than the other cities.”
Slava learned from the greats, becoming fascinated by figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Marcel Marceau. In 1979 he began touring the world with his own shows. And in 1993 he created Slava’s Snowshow which has now circled the globe taking in Europe, Israel, North America, Mexico, South Korea, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
“I select a country and I go there for three or four months every year,” he says. “When I come to a country I really want to understand this country and taste all of its parts.
“With the UK it is very minimalist and you have this great nonsense tradition like Edward Lear and Alice in Wonderland. So when I am in the UK I surround myself with your country.
“Each country is different and in the UK the people are very sophisticated and have a lot of attention. So, when we come to a scene and there is a pause, the British public will wait maybe five or ten seconds and they will start to think ‘what is he thinking?’
“But in New York City we can only pause for two seconds because there they are very active. The Americans are very child-like. And in India you can go without speaking for 15 minutes because they are totally immersed in that feeling. They will float along with you. In Russia they want to commiserate with you and hear all your problems.
“Every country demands a different play. That is why we need to go there for several years.”
And Slava says a life should also be lived across continents.
“Everyone should travel in their lives,” he says. “They should grow up in Siberia, then move to New York where they can be strong, then they can go to London when they want to hide from the bustling world and when they want to just create they go to France.”
Which brings us back to Slava’s home which he frequently shares with countless visitors as well as his three sons and their families, including his two granddaughters.
“This house is how I like to live,” he says. “I have the idea that life should be a theatre. It is making life art. I want to eradicate the border between life and art. So I try to conduct my life like I would a play with music, costumes, scenarios.
“So when friends come to visit they live in different rooms which each have their own faces. And they take on the character of the room. A lot of the guests improvise and create their own plays.
“For example in the Nutcracker Room I invite people to celebrate New Year – at any time of the year, it is New Year there every week.
“Then there is a room called the Grandmother Room and I invite people there to take tea and reminisce about the old days. And in the Mexico Room it is all sunny and bright so this is the room for fiesta and dancing.”
At this point Slava rises from his seat in the Mexico room and suggests we tour the house. Suddenly we are immersed in our own Alice in Wonderland experience as we pass from one space to another. Corridors with shell-shaped walls lead into a totally white space where swirling shapes are inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. A gap above our head is for sleeping and, when we ask how to access it, Slava just shakes his head. ‘Who knows?’ he says cryptically.
We pass into a kitchen and bedroom where every item is intricately patterned in blue and white, with pieces collected from all over the world or created from pieces of scrap.
On the wall Slava points out two blue and white round circles embedded in the plaster. “These are the tops of teapots which we use to hang coats on,” he says. “And these curtains were made out of doyleys.”
In the children’s playroom we are hit by a riot of colour which, he tells us, was created by a Brazilian street theatre group who came to stay.
“I met them in Sao Paolo and invited them to stay. They put on music and they painted while the music played,” recalls Slava. “When guests come here they have two or three days of doing nothing and then they have to create something.”
Which means that the house changes all the time.
“I have wiring in all the house so that music can sound in the rooms and outside in the garden,” says Slava. “And all my workshops are here. But in my theatre I forbid the words ‘work’ or ‘rehearsal’. My life is all about fantasy and it is all over and all around.
“There is no beginning and no end and life and fantasy fill all the space and surround us.”
With the tour of house and garden over, it is time to leave. Slava shakes our hands and follows us down to the giant gate to his home. We exit through a small door and when I turn to look I notice a shadowy clown shape sculpted into the exotic door frame. The only hint that magic lies beyond its walls.
* Slava’s Snowshow, Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre, Nov 9-13, tickets: 0844 338 5000