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Try Montreux, for a laugh

In terms of entertainment there's much more to Montreux than jazz. For 11 years it has also hosted an international festival of laughter with no borders in the linguistic sense, thanks to comics such as Rob Spence.

Based in Switzerland, the Australian performs throughout Europe in French, German, Italian -even English - and is as much at home in the theatre or on television as he is at this week's festival in Montreux.

The essence of a Spence performance is visual comedy, which as he says, works everywhere in the world. That, combined with the extreme Australian tendency to poke fun at people who take themselves too seriously, goes down well with the Swiss.

"Non-stop gags with all-round talent" is a typical quote from the Swiss-German newspaper cuttings file of this clown, mime artist and dancer.

But all the praise hasn't gone to his head: "You can't have a big head in Australia," he says, "in fact even the Australian prime minister has to keep his feet on the ground. The Swiss are remarkably like Australians because they too enjoy laughing at their own culture."

Spence acknowledges that performing comedy in a foreign language can be hard work at first: "It usually takes me three shows to get the hang of a country. The first show might be a disaster, in the second I start to revive myself, and by the third I have figured out what makes them laugh."

The Montreux festival of laughter was founded in 1989 by a group of university students who intended it to be a one-off. Grégoire Furrer was one of them. "It became much more successful than we could have imagined," he said, "and after four years I chose festival directing as a profession."

As festival director, Furrer has put a big smile on the face of Montreux, which this year will be as broad as ever thanks to a galaxy of mainly French-speaking comics. Not forgetting Rob Spence and his British, American and Indian fellow-performers, who will take the stage of the Casino for a gala night on Saturday.

by Richard Dawson

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