Environmentally conscious theatre group Simple8′s latest production is a stage show inspired by influential silent horror film ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’. Duly intrigued by the sound of all that, we put some questions to the writing and directing team of Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton.
CM: ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ was originally a film. What made you want to create theatre from it?
SA+DH: We were pitching around for interesting source material, and thought that German Expressionist films might be an interesting place to look. There was an explosion of cinema at that time in Germany because they’d banned foreign films, and yet the public were clamouring for movies.
To answer it German film-makers had to make their films quickly and cheaply. That’s why we looked at them. We thought the constraints they were working under are similar to the constraints we choose to work under. The famous angular painted backdrops of ‘Caligari’ weren’t born out an ideal, they came from necessity. In a way they were making ‘poor’ cinema and we make ‘poor’ theatre. We then came across the fabulous ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and crucially, we felt here was something we could add to, rather than just replicate.
CM: Why is the film so influential?
SA+DH: People often call it the first horror film, and the inspiration for film noir. You can see its influence in the work of directors from Fritz Lang to Hitchcock to Tim Burton. ‘Caligari’ was undoubtedly designed to be a weird and unsettling form of entertainment, and its appeal at the time must have been partly down to how extraordinarily different it is.
It’s ghoulish, mad and visually striking because of the unrealistic painted backdrops, make-up and lighting. It’s also got a famous – and at the time, I think, original – twist that’s been rehashed in many ways since (‘Shutter Island’ and the production of ‘Hamlet’ at the Young Vic are two recent examples that called it to my mind). ‘Edward Scissorhands’, I believe, is loosely influenced by Cesare, the sleep-walker in Caligari.
CM: How did the play come together? Did you sit down and write it, or was it devised?
SA+DH: Both actually. All our work is developed with a group of artists – in this case, around 10 actors were involved as well as writers and directors. We did two separate weeks of research and development – the first focused on which elements of the existing story we wanted to explore, and which new elements we wanted to devise ourselves.
A big challenge for us was paying homage to the film while creating a play that stood on its own feet, and told a story that worked theatrically. After the first week we (the writers) went away and wrote a very rough skeleton for a script, before a second week of workshopping, where we developed specific scenes and characters, as well as writing a musical theme for the show (all music is played live on stage by the ensemble) and trying out some of the more physical sequences, especially any parts we could do without using text.
We then had about 4 months to write a draft ready for rehearsals, a lot of which we’ve taken great delight in cutting over the last four weeks.
CM: Have you tried to recreate a sense of the film, or is it really all about the story?
SA+DH: We’ve never been interested in mimicking the film or recreating it on stage. If anyone wants the film, it’s on YouTube for anyone to watch. Also, we’ve got an alternative range of skills and devices to tell the story which the film doesn’t have. For example, where Robert Wiene had editing and close-up we have sound and colour. We’re trying to bill our show as a new play inspired by the film. Hopefully you’ll recognize the film in our play and it’ll sit in dialogue with it – provocatively and sensitively.
CM: The film is a horror story – is your stage show scary?
SA+DH: The show is hopefully unsettling. It’s set in a fair, and the world of that fair is key to the story we’re telling: it’s a world of shadowy corners, of freaks and ghost shows, a place where thrills, lawlessness and blurring realities meet; it should be “a wonderful nightmare”, as Ernest Hemingway once described the Pamplona Festival. But the exciting thing about the piece is that like a fair, as well as being unsettling, it’s fun and vibrant, with music and fast-moving sideshows.
CM: As a company, you’re dedicated to environmental concerns. Can you tell us something about Simple8′s approach to making theatre?
SA+DH: Reducing our impact on the environment is very important to us as a company, and we’re lucky that this sits so well with the style of work we do. The tenets of sustainability – reduce, don’t waste and reuse – are tenets we adhere to when we’re making plays, where the emphasis is on simplicity and actors rather than elaborate sets and effects.
In our work we ask ourselves, can we do this effect with just a bit of old wood? Can it be a bit of old wood we’ve used before? It’s the same for the writing and performers – can this scene be simpler? Do I need all these gestures when one will do?
Everything in ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ and our other upcoming piece ‘Moby-Dick’ is either made out of stuff we’ve used before, or stuff of other people’s that we’ve recycled. (For example, the eponymous Cabinet will be a coffin in Moby-Dick; part of the set in Moby-Dick is built out of a set used by another company, who no longer wanted it).
CM: Do you think you’ll stage this show again after the current London run?
SA+DH: We’d love to run ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ after London, in the UK or abroad. It’s always a financial challenge for us because we use large casts, but a big part of the company’s future – one that is financially sustainable – and part of our thinking in doing back-to-back productions, is building up a repertoire of shows that can be put on any time, anywhere. And we hope both the current shows would work in different spaces, and to different audiences.
CM: What’s next for Simple8?
SA+DH: Once ‘Caligari’ opens, we start rehearsing for ‘Moby-Dick’ with the same ensemble. It runs at Arcola until the beginning of May. After that, we’ve got about four ideas for future projects, one of which we’ll develop. We’re hoping to do this in association with a venue, but possibly do it in a non-theatrical setting.
‘The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari’ runs at Arcola Theatre until 16 Mar; Simple8′s next production, ‘Moby-Dick’, will follow at the same venue from 27 Mar.