Although most of our influences have come from the World of film, literature or art we have inevitably been changed by live performance. From the early work of Theatre de Complicité to first encounters with international companies. At a time when it still feels impossible to be in a theatre watching more than one performer on stage, here are ten events that captured, for us, the notion of theatre as a live collective experience. All these shows have stayed with me. My shaky memory may not recall every detail of them, but they affected me in the way that only live theatre can.

Paul Hunter, Artistic Director, Told by an Idiot

 

SHOW 1. METAMORPHOSIS- Steven Berkoff (Mermaid Theatre 1986)

Just before I went to drama school in 1986 I travelled down from B’ham to London to see some theatre. My theatre viewing up to this point had been fairly limited, it had  consisted mainly of school visits to Stratford to see some Shakespeare, and Danny La Rue in panto at the B’ham Hippodrome. I saw 3 shows in the capital two were fairly conventional, then I went to the Mermaid Theatre to see Stephen Berkoff’s version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It would be fair to say it ‘blew my mind’. I don’t think I had heard of Berkoff, at this point, but I think I had read Kafka’s extraordinary story of the man who wakes up one morning to discover he has changed into a beetle. The company consisted of 5 performers Berkoff himself, Linda Marlow, Tim Roth, Saskia Reeves, and Gary Olsen, and the set was a kind of metal climbing frame. I hadn’t seen physical performing like it. Roth was extraordinary as Gregor Samsa, scuttling around the frame, sometimes clinging on up side down I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The whole style of the show sucked me in, and even though it could be argued Berkoff’s work was later to become a parody of itself. This was intoxicating and had an amazing effect on a young Brummy lad.

 

SHOW 2: A MATTER OF CHANCE- The Kosh (Edinburgh Fringe 1988)

I left drama school in 1988 and went up to Edinburgh for the first time in a play written by someone in the year above me. I was terribly miscast and truly terrible as a Chilean political prisoner. It was a tough experience as for some reason no one seemed very interested in seeing an intense and earnest political drama presented by a group of twenty year olds in a Church on the edge of the city at 10.30am in the morning. On the bright side with the limited funds available to me, I started to look in the fringe brochure to try and decide what shows to see. As a result, one eveningI found myself at the Theatre Workshop in Stockbridge waiting to see A Matter of Chance by a company called the Kosh. I discovered that it was adapted by Roger McGough from a short story by Vladimir Nabokov. The action took place on the Berlin to Paris express as it thundered through the night, and it told a tragic tale of drug addiction and lost love. The visual storytelling was captivating on a set that conjured up a locomotive whilst at the same time being like a transformative playground for the performers. I am sure I was reacting to feeling trapped inside the naturalism of the play I was in, but I immediately longed to be part of the excitement of what I was seeing unfold in front of me. The performers were terrific, particularly Sian Williams who was a co founder of the company. Fortunately, I got to know Sian and years later she provided some wonderful movement expertise on the Idiot musical I Am Thomas. The Kosh described themselves as dance theatre, and when later I read the original Nabokov story I realised that this wonderful company had opened up the possibilities of adaptation for me. It was a travesty when their funding was cut, because for me, they were one of the truly original British companies and this show in particular had a lasting impact on me.

 

SHOW 3: TITUS ANDRONICUS- RSC (Barbican 1988)

When I left drama school I was living and working in a pub in Kentish Town. One day I was doing the very quiet mid-week lunchtime shift, when I saw the actor Donald Sumpter walk past the window. I stopped mid way through pouring Ron the postman's pint and raced outside. I caught up with Mr Sumpter and rather awkwardly congratulated him on his performance as Marcus Andronicus in Deborah Warner’s RSC  production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Brian Cox had played Titus and I had just seen the show at the Barbican.

I had only seen Shakespeare on big stages like B’ham Rep or Stratford, this was in the intimate Pit theatre and it blew me away. I quite literally didn’t know Classical theatre could be like this. Brian Cox described this production as:
‘the most interesting thing I have ever done in the theatre’

The production brilliantly and consistently blurred the line between tragedy and comedy, releasing the themes of the play in a startling and unsettling way. At Told by an Idiot we have always been fascinated by inhabiting the space between laughter and pain, and this seminal treatment of one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ was an early inspiration for us.

 

SHOW 4: MORE BIGGER SNACKS NOW (Complicité 1989)

It wouldn’t be too strong a thing to say that theatrically speaking Complicité were the single biggest influence on our work in the early years. I remember doing a Commedia project at college in 1987 led by John Wright. He suggested one day that we go as a group to the Shaw Theatre to see An Evening With Theatre de Complicité. None of us had heard of them, they had only been going for four years but had already won the Perrier Comedy award in 1985 with More Bigger Snacks Now. We took our seats in the auditorium and as we did, we became aware of an argument between two old ladies in our row, it became more and more heated until eventually they both stood up and pushed past us carrying their shopping bags. I was very embarrassed as I had not seen this kind of thing in the theatre before. The two women proceeded to walk down onto the stage, the show had begun and the arguing pair were Celia Gore Booth and Linda Kerr Scott. Then the anarchy exploded. Toby Sedgwick came on stage, lay down and pretended to be bacon frying in a pan. Simon McBurney came out and got someone out of the audience and copied his walk. I had never seen anything like it, I didn’t even know what it was, it felt like watching some crazy circus. I just knew I had to be part of it.

In 1989 Pierre Audi who had founded The Almeida Theatre gave it over to Complicité for eleven weeks for a retrospective and some new work, at the time this was unprecedented.

Audi talked about Complicité thus:
‘Their contribution is to open up the horizons of audiences who don’t need to be constantly obsessed with the idea of coming to listen to words, words, words. They have shown us that stagecraft is a form of authorship.’

Funds permitting Hayley and I tried to see everything we could in that season, and my memory says when we couldn’t get in we just hung out in the bar to be around the atmosphere. The performers were incredibly charismatic and diverse, they didn’t look like any actors I had seen, and to put it in a naff way, they were cool.

More Bigger Snacks Now starred Simon McBurney, Jozef Houben, Marcello Magni and Tim Barlow and is still one of the funniest things I have ever seen. A filthy sofa, a dimly lit living room, and a malfunctioning television are the backdrop for this Perrier Award winning comedy about getting what you want.

There were inspired moments eg; when  Simon managed to get a five pound note from someone in the audience, and the cast violently fought over it finally ripping it. In their desperation they tried to stitch it back together and the scene morphed into an operating theatre. The ending was sublime, they have no money but they decide to escape their tawdry flat and go on holiday. Simply by sitting on the sofa and using a bent coat hanger they create the illusion of being on a plane, and as they squeeze their faces to the window they begin to talk about the beautiful desert Island they can see. The lights came down till it was just capturing their faces, and then black out.

It is worth saying that all of this extraordinary early work from Complicité was happening at a time when British Theatre was still coming out of a predominantly literary tradition. They had a huge influence not just on us but a whole generation of British Theatre Makers.
 

SHOW 5: MOOSE (The Right Size, London International Mime Festival 1992)

I first encountered the sublime Right Size in a field in Belgium in 1991, when I was performing with the mask company Trestle at the Limburg Festival. They were presenting their third show Flight To Finland and all the performers were staying in caravans and would hang out together after their respective shows. I was immediately intrigued by the two founder members Hamish McColl and John Foley, even as young performers they already had the whiff of an old music hall double act. Hamish, when talking about ‘physical theatre’, described The Right Size as being different from other British companies from that period:

‘The difference for us is that we hitched ourselves more to vaudeville and variety. We like to see ourselves as much in that tradition as in the explosion from France.’

As soon as I saw that the company would be presenting their new show Moose at BAC as part of the Mime Festival in '92 I booked tickets. I had hyped the company to my pal Steve and we went along with high expectations. We weren’t disappointed. It remains one of the most consistently hilarious shows I have ever seen. Right from the get go when Hamish, playing a lone prospector somewhere in the frozen north, wakes up in his little wooden cabin we knew we were in for a treat. He is clearly freezing and then without saying a word he proceeded to demonstrate that with some wonderful comic invention. I remember him removing his underpants from the heater where they had been drying over night. Hamish shook the pants and we saw water come off them, he then walked towards the little window opened it, and shook the pants outside, immediately bringing them back in to reveal that they had gone stiff as a board in the freezing temperatures. It was the first of many superb sight gags in the piece. The physical comedy was utterly joyous and the understanding between the three performers was something to behold. Their reinvention and subversion of old music hall routines was delightful and inspired me to go and search for opportunities to learn this essential performers tradition. Later reading the programme I realised alongside their director, the wonderful Jos Houben, they had also collaborated with Johnny Hutch whose lineage stretched back to the golden period of variety.

As the haunted and under threat loner, Hamish had a face you couldn’t take your eyes off, and John's physicality was a rhythmic delight. I feel The Right Size were often imitated but never bettered and Moose was a pure example of them at the top of their game. One critic described The Right Size’s work as having ‘the highest joke rate you can bear without dying’. Praise indeed.