The Hackney Empire's Roland Muldoon booked Polunin "sight unseen" for three nights, and has been worshipping the god of theatre fortune ever since. The crowd doubled each night purely on word of mouth. "The audience was looking for something different. I felt the same. I'm more rewarded by that than by a lot of stand-up. I can see clowning becoming a very popular medium," Muldoon says.
Most people would rather visit the dentist than watch a clown show, but Muldoon has put his money where his mouth is and dubbed 1999 Year of the Clown at the Hackney Empire. But there are strictly no custard pies, and no Marcel Marceau either. Instead, from Catalonia, comes Leandre, a prankster of consummate physical skill, and from Russia via Dresden come Derevo, the electrifying troupe who wowed last year's Edinburgh Festival with Once.
The refreshing thing about both these acts is that they're not just there to make you laugh. When clowns become slaves to gags they become crude and often unfunny. The great clowns, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Jacques Tati and Jean-Louis Barrault, used pathos as much as humour, and inspired their audience with compassion, even empathy, rather than the contempt or fear often felt for circus clowns. Slava's Snowshow opens with the familiar yellow- and red-costumed figure shuffling sadly on carrying a noose. His attempt to hang himself is tragically thwarted by the fact that there's another clown on the other end of it, also trying to hang herself.
Clowns who achieve this bittersweet combination are internationally popular because they are trading in universal human emotion, rather than just comedy, which is culturally very specific. Muldoon cites the case of Amazon tribes laughing uproariously at Chaplin films, while a modern clown, like Mr Bean, is laughed at in 17 languages. Slava Polunin claims there are 10 great stage clowns in the world, and Muldoon is on the hunt for them.
"It wasn't until I saw Jean-Louis Barrault in Les Enfants du Paradis that I understood what clowning can be if it isn't restricted by comedy. Good clowns are like Blues musicians, they're free to stay within a theme but improvise around it. It works each time, but differently. They play off the audience and it has to be live - you can't do it on telly."
One of the 10, he is sure, is Leandre. A master of ingenuity and transformation, he has moved from street busking in his native Barcelona to international touring in large, proscenium-arch theatres. His major assets are his face and body, over which he has total manipulative control. He uses them unadorned by make-up, red nose or baggy pants, but refers back to Chaplin and the clochard style of clowning with an old suit which is slightly ill-fitting and crumpled.
His skill as a physical performer is matched by his imagination. He does use props - umbrellas turn into butterflies, crinolines, the wheels of various vehicles; a roll of masking-tape becomes the various instruments in a jazz band, and then a partner in tango. But he doesn't need props. It's the power of suggestion that presents us with the constipated man who proudly wears his turds on his shoulders like epaulettes.
"Audiences don't accept fiction so much any more, so most clowns don't play with fiction, they play with reality," he explains. But the key to his popularity is, as Muldoon identifies, his connection with the public. "The show always changes in response to the audience," he says. "I'm really there every time, and anything can happen. If I get distracted by something in the audience, it's not annoying like it is in a play, it's a chance for me. We build this show together, the audience and me, and we go as far as we can." Leandre sees himself as part of an eclectic tradition which incorporates the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, Cyrano de Bergerac, Steven Berkoff, Robin Williams, Jim Carey, commedia dell'arte... "I accept and show my influences. It's obvious they're there," he says. It's particularly poignant for him to work at the Hackney Empire, which has hosted some of the greats of that tradition, including Chaplin in his early days, Stan Laurel, WC Fields and Buster Keaton. "That theatre has got magic," concurs Leandre. "I don't know how or why, but in the wings you feel it."
Derevo emanate from a different, though similar, tradition. Founding member Anton Adassinsky worked in Slava's Licedei clown troupe for several years before branching out with his own company. But Anton shares some of Polunin's almost obsessional research into the business. When Slava was preparing to go professional, he allegedly spent two years in a library reading about clowning and studying 91 videos of Chaplin movies. Anton gathered a group of 50 students together and embarked on a year of 16- hour days, going through 200 exercises to achieve a state of mental and physical purity. By the end of the year, five of the 50 remained, and they are the core Derevo.
"I once saw a book which had documentary photos of psychiatric patients," says Anton by way of explanation. "They had such strong eyes - it was an old book with bad print, but such energy came out of the eyes. I thought, if such power can come just from paper, how is it possible to do it on stage?" The resulting performance was Red Zone, a violent, expressionistic piece which won the admiration of avant-gardistes, including the producer Michael Morris. "They are genuinely, alarmingly anarchic, and provide a much-needed antidote to the highly-drilled chaos of, say, The Wooster Group or Jan Fabre," said Morris at the time.
Once, which comes to the Hackney Empire at the end of April, is a far gentler affair, though it still taps into the primal emotions of an audience. "We realised that people still need lyrical clowns and love stories," says Anton. Once weaves a tale of the doomed love of a beak-nosed janitor (played by Anton) for a doll-like beauty in a cafe. For his performance, Anton dons the white face, false nose and outsized shoes of the traditional clown, though the show itself transcends this tradition.
He sees the make-up as having the effect of a mask. "It's very powerful. It's bigger than the performer, it changes you and it changes the audience. It brings the feeling of fairytale, it brings imagination which doesn't exist in the world. For me, if a clown is just human, it's not really a clown. It has to be able to break through to another world." That world is one which makes people laugh in spite of their suffering. "If we lose this, we lose everything," says Anton.
If audiences can overcome their prejudices and tap into the transformative spirit of clowning rather than its superficial and debased aspects, perhaps the millennium-old form will again become truly popular. Like stand-up, but with depth and diversity.
Leandre: Thurs to Sun; Derevo: 27 Apr to 9 May, both at the Hackney Empire, London E8. A series of clowning workshops will also be held, for further information, call the box office: 0181-985 2424