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Theatre review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Arcola Theatre

PUBLISHED: 18:03 14 February 2013 | UPDATED: 15:24 15 February 2013

Christopher Doyle in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Picture: Idil Sukan

Christopher Doyle in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Picture: Idil Sukan

Archant

Stage adaptation of classic silent horror film makes for ‘poor theatre’ at its best

Simple8’s production explodes into the Arcola’s Studio 2 in a riot of colour, music, voices and movement, and never lets up over the next 90 minutes.

It uses live music, puppetry, shadow, clanging and banging and screaming, to create a world that is chaotic, irrational and nightmarish, but where enough reality can be glimpsed through the fantasy for the audience to recognise everyday life and suffering.

Set in a small town in Germany and largely in a fairground, the play is adapted from a German Expressionist film, made in 1920, which has since been hugely influential and inspirational in drama, music, art and to numerous horror films.

The story concerns a sleepwalker, held captive by a fairground entertainer in his “cabinet”, who has – or appears to have – extraordinary powers. This bizarre character, combining with the corruption and stupidity of the local worthies, causes murder, imprisonment and misery.

The film was made at a time of economic depression in Germany, when ordinary people were insecure and frightened. Contemporary parallels are not hard to find.

Directed by Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton, Simple8’s version, while clearly derived from the film, is an interpretation very much of its own. It is modern and imaginative, avoiding the heavy earnestness too often associated with Expressionism.

Bursts of humour mitigate the horror. This is poor theatre at its best. Virtually no money has been spent on set or props, although there has been no skimping on the excellent costumes (Sands Films). The music (David Brett and Hannah Emanuel), too, is of the highest standard.

But it is mostly through the skilful writing and talented ensemble acting that Expressionism comes across, loud and clear. Impossible to praise individual actors in such an ensemble: they all perform in harmony with the writing, the effects, the music, the lighting (Sherry Coenen) in a production that is entertaining, thought-provoking, terrifying and funny.

* The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is at the Arcola Theatre in Ashwin Street, E8, until March 16. Box office: 020 7503 1646.


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