Monday 18 February 2013

Theatre review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

A travelling fair makes its annual trip to a small German town, with a new star attraction: The Somnambulist, in which Dr. Caligari (Oliver Birch) exhibits the seriously ill man he's been "looking after," Cesare (Christopher Doyle,) who suffers from a sleeping sickness but can perform any number of feats in his sleep - including predicting the future. The arrival of the fair coincides with an outburst of strangling, and suspicion falls on jittery Town Hall employee Franzis (Joseph Kloska,) who knew and disliked both victims. Franzis denies committing the murders - or at least, he has no memory of doing so, but increasingly distrusts what is real and what a dream. Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton of Poor Theatre company simple8 adapt and direct the classic German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as part of a residency at the Arcola (next month they present Moby-Dick, and there's reduced-price tickets for booking both shows together.)

simple8 take a similarly minimalist approach here as they did with The Four Stages of Cruelty a couple of years ago, and it results in another inventive show, with lights, shadow, live music and physical theatre creating an atmospheric evening (and the way they create the mechanical clock is joyous.)

There's a lot of humour in the production and it rockets along but, helped by the innately sinister setting of the fair, it's underlined throughout by something darker - the strangling victims (all played by Sargon Yelda) may be pretty unlikeable characters and their demises highly stylised shadow plays, but there's something uncomfortably real about the way the Mayor (David Brett) and his employees persecute the hapless Franzis and try to get him to confess. Especially as Franzis is an unwelcome suitor to the Mayor's daughter Jane (Sophie Roberts) who could be easily got rid of with a rigged trial and a trip to the guillotine.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari hasn't really been adapted with the intention of being a piece of modern horror theatre, although its eerie half-real half-dream world and deliberate vagueness sometimes give it an unsettling quality. It's really more of an entertainment, on which front it succeeds admirably, with everyone involved giving the impression that they love nothing better than working on a shoestring (given some of the big-budget monstrosities Armesto's been involved in in the last couple of years, you can see why he'd relish the chance to value imagination over budget.)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton with simple8, based on the film by Robert Wiene, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, is booking until the 16th of March at Arcola Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

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