Bonsoir mes amies! It’s that special time of year – where we will all delight in the love, laughter and
intrigue of another improvised soap opera – Nothing Toulouse! Let’s take a walk, shall we?
Un petit promenade? Our setting: Montmartre, Paris. The 20th century is fast approaching and you’re lucky
enough to be in the City of Love in the midst of its Belle Epoque (‘Beautiful Era’).
It was an era that started after one war ended, and would come to an end with the start of another – but in the
meantime, there’s much fun to be had, so grab a baguette and a French mime and let’s get moving!
You dodge and weave through narrow streets that are packed with nearly one million new residents
from all over Europe. Workmen emerge from the factories and plants - the industrial revolution is
gathering steam (literally), and innovation is the flavour of the day (figuratively).
A new-fangled device by the Renault brothers called a Voiturette (a fancy French word for ‘car’) almost runs you
down as you cross the cobbled streets. You join the line to see the latest example of something
called ‘cinema’ by Georges Méliés - Le Voyage dans la Lune (‘A Trip to the Moon’) where old moon-
face gets hit with a wine bottle/space rocket in the eye. It’s fantastic, but as you’re French now you
think it’s fantastique.
Having returned to earth, you wander through one of the many new public gardens, nodding
awkwardly (you’re still not sure how you got here, are you?) at the monsieurs et madams dressed in
their haute couture, purchased, no doubt, from the shiny, new department stores that seem to be
everywhere. People are admiring the new statues, bridges and buildings that are emerging
throughout Paris. Three Universal Expositions in three decades have brought the world coming back
again and again to see the city’s wonders – look, there’s the head and shoulders of the Statue of
Liberty (you look furtively around for apes on horseback, but that’s a whole other thing). The city is
reinventing itself before your eyes.
In the distance is that crazy fellow Gustave Eiffel’s enormous tower taking shape – “I wonder if it will be any good?” remarks a passing couple, but you don’t understand because they say it in French (because they are, bien sûr, French).
A loud throng of ladies and gentlemen emerge from a station of the newly built underground métro.
They’re singing songs about garlic and cheese, so you know they’re in a pretty good mood. The
installation of electric lighting has made the night come alive with beauty and possibilities. But
where to go? You follow them from the newly built Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre
(magnifique!) and down the streets to the hottest location in town – THE MOULIN ROUGE! Its iconic
red windmill turns above the entryway, hinting at exotic delights within. Down the stairs, the place is
pulsing with joie de vivre (which is French for ‘joie de vivre’)!
The tables are filled with artists, poets, thinkers, the good and the great (and those wanting to be
seen near the good and the great). Henri de Toulouse-Latrec is sketching famed dancer Jane Avril in
the corner. Matisse, Gaugin, Rousseau (all the big names) and a young Spaniard named Pablo look
on jealously, sketching their own sketches of other things – it’s a pretty sketchy area... New ideas are
being thrown about like ‘Japonism’, Art Nouveau’, ‘Neo-Renaissance’ – seriously, it’s ALL happening.
Victor Hugo and Emil Zola are exchanging bon mots and dirty jokes. Charles Baudelaire is very
impressed with a particularly good stanza he’s just scribbled down on a napkin. Marcel Proust is
taking literally ages to decide whether or not eat another madeleine. Famed author Colette is kissing
the Duchess of Morny onstage and a general riot is ensuing (read a room, Colette!).
Outside in the garden, punters from all classes are debating and drinking French champagne (what
else?). There’s a LOT of flirting and people giving each other the eye – why, it’s the Chapel Street of
Paris! A massive wooden elephant (oui, un éléphant) stands proudly, overlooking the scene. If you
were to ascend the staircase in one of its legs you might be lucky enough to get up close and
personal with a belly dancer or two. The moon seems to be winking at you – the whole world is
seducing you tonight.
The entertainment program for the night – dancer Louise Weber or La Gouloue (The Glutton), so-
called for her legendary consumption of alcohol; Valentin ‘The Boneless’ – the most limber legs in
the business; the brilliant dances of female clown Cha-U-Kao - openly lesbian and fiercely one-of-a-
kind; the popular singer Mistinguett – her legs are insured for 500,000 francs! (whatever you do,
don’t yell ‘break a leg’ – they won’t laugh); plus a host of illusionists, singers, burlesque and comic
performers and glorious oddities like Le Pétomane – the man who can break wind on command.
Back inside the club the curtain is falling on the latest operetta, and then it begins – THE CAN-CAN!
The crowd is going wild for the Gangnam style of its day, cheering as the long-legged ladies strut
their stuff and push prim societal norms to the edge. Near the stage you see one of the ‘morals
police’ making sure the dancers are wearing underwear (not a joke). This is Paris at her peak, her
most vivacious, her most glorious. And you’re here to be a part of it! You lucky devil!
Though, as you look carefully about the establishment you think you can make out the faces of Jenny
Lovell and Amy Moule, the laugh of Patti Stiles, and that fellow by the bar resembles a young Tim Redmond or Jaime Cerda. That couldn’t be Jason Geary winking at you, could it? And surely not John Voce? Suddenly you’re sure the place is crawling with Impro Melbourne rogues and
charlatans, and that this whole thing might just be a beautiful dream… Go home, my friend. You’re drunk.
Nothing Toulouse is a weekly improvised soap set in Paris’s Montmartre in the heady days and nights
of the Belle Epoque.
Sundays, 7pm from June 30 to August 11.
David Williamson Theatre, Prahran.