COVID-19 Response Idiots in Isolation Seen by an Idiot 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. SHOW 6: THE STREET OF CROCODILES (Complicité 1992) ‘I am overwhelmed...I cry... rare in theatre...for the vision, the imagination, for Schulz, for the laughter, for the playing, for the company, for live theatre’ This quote from Simon Murray from his 1993 review of Complicitié's defining show The Street of Crocodiles sums up how I feel about this extraordinary theatrical experience. A piece I saw four times, on its first ever preview at the National Theatre in 1992 (when the audience were held in the foyer because the show wasn’t ‘finished’, and Simon McBurney came on stage to address us before it began), at the Dublin Festival, the Young Vic, and in the West End at the Whitehall Theatre. It’s impact was astonishing and it marked a turning point in Complicitié's work. Based on the life and writings of the Polish author Bruno Schultz who was killed by the Nazis in 1942, The Street of Crocodiles was a highly imagistic and poetic piece of theatre that merged movement, image, text, puppetry, object manipulation and music in a way I had never seen a British company do before. In the years that followed its premiere, it influenced a whole generation of British theatre makers. The original international company were astonishing, it included our co-founder Hayley and this allowed us a brilliant insight into the show's creation. Yes they had the luxury of a longer rehearsal period but the show was being forged in the white heat of the rehearsal room. It was a brilliant example of working with a writer (Mark Wheatley) to adapt the material but leaving the space for the collaboration between director, performers, designers, musicians etc. The sense of transformation in the show was breathtaking. Class room books became birds in the blink of an eye, the sense of perspective was skewed from the very beginning of the show as the opening image was a man walking horizontally down the back wall as if it was the floor, brilliantly capturing visually the strange world of Bruno Schultz, and the ending was heartbreaking. Schultz played delicately and poignantly by Cesar Sarachu is shot by the Gestapo (a performer slamming a book shut to suggest the gun shot) he stumbles and the company slowly begin to undress him revealing his vulnerable slight frame. The simple wooden chairs are put in a line and Shultz is passed along the performers (Schultz’s family) and held briefly by each one as if he is a small child. Finally he is taken by Lilo Bauer (playing the Schultz housekeeper), she starts to carry Schultz, surrounded by the rest of the company up stage towards the doors and the company disappears. Beautifully lit by Paule Constable, accompanied by the haunting music of Gerard McBurney, and played out on Rae Smiths deceptively simple set, this image has stayed with me for the last twenty eight years as has this unique testament to live theatre. In this time of uncertainty for live performance it feels more important than ever. SHOW 7: VICKTOR (Pina Bausch) I saw this show in 1999 at Sadler's Wells, I had seen Bausch’s work previously including Cafe Muller at the Edinburgh International Festival in the late eighties, but something about Vicktor affected me deeply. Inspired by the city of Rome, Vicktor was the first of Pina Bausch’s epic travelogues which took her company round the world. As I entered the auditorium alone, the first thing that struck me was the extraordinary set, like some enormous grave taking up the whole vast space of the stage. At the top of the ‘grave’ two people walked, occasionally shovelling earth down into the pit, this continued throughout the performance. The wit, grace, and unusual beauty of the dancers hit me from the start, the music crossed centuries and continents, folk music from Italy, waltzes from Russia and dance music from the Middle Ages to the 1930s. As a company who has always revelled in juxtaposition and clashing elements together, the way Bausch had constructed the piece fascinated me. There was one repeated physical motif in the show that has stayed with me. A performer would come on stage and very simply sit down with their legs stretched out in front of them. They would then shuffle on their bottom slowly towards the audience, they would do this for a moment then abruptly stop get up and leave, provoking laughter. This happened throughout the evening with more performers joining the movement, until the end. One person came on stage, sat down and began the movement then they were joined by someone else, and then someone else, until eventually the whole company were on stage doing the same simple movement. As the large ensemble slowly moved towards the audience in this faintly ludicrous fashion, something about the repetition of this movement through the piece, the music employed and the strange tomb like setting made me weep. The piece was full of moments of beauty and comedy, and I am pleased that the unlikely influence of the German maverick made its way into our wild family sketch show Get Happy. SHOW 8: A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM (Footsbarn, Highbury Fields/LIFT Festival 1991) ‘Footsbarn's influence can be detected in a subsequent generation of companies, without Footsbarn we may never have had Complicitie, Kneehigh, and Told by an Idiot. Which reach out across the footlights and embrace the audience, recognising that circus and clowning are not dirty words.’ Lyn Gardner Footsbarn were a slightly mythical company for us, after meeting in London in 1970 they moved and established themselves in Cornwall in 1971. The company left Britain in 1981 to tour the world. There was subsequently little opportunity to see their work in the UK, so having heard about this troupe of itinerant players I seized the chance to see them on Highbury Fields in 1991 as part of the Lift Festival. They had quite literally bought their tent from Auvergne in Central France, and this modern commedia family ripped up a storm in this corner of north London. It was as if the group from Renoir’s superb film The Golden Coach had rocked up in town. For me they captured the very essence of Shakespeare’s comedy, employing masks, music, puppetry and sublime clowning from a company drawn from seven different countries. Footsbarn bought this very well known play to life in the most elemental of ways, the mechanicals were genuinely funny and didn’t seem like classically trained actors at all because they weren’t. Yes some of the poetry was mangled, yes you didn’t always hear everything, but my God it was certainly never boring. The relationship with the audience was generous, warm and democratic as Paddy Hayter, who played Bottom said: ‘We share a performance with the audience, rather than perform it for them.’ It was a sublime evening and it really stayed with me. Years later in in 2006 I was lucky enough to be playing Bottom at the Globe when the Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole came into our dressing room and told us that some members of Footsbarn were in the audience that evening because later in the season they would be presenting one of their shows at the Globe. I was very excited and slightly disappointed that the younger members of the dressing room had never heard of this extraordinary company. After the show I was introduced to a very drunk Paddy Hayter in the bar, he gave me an enormous hug and slightly swaying looked directly into my eyes and said: ‘You're Bottom, I’m Bottom. You're Bottom, I’m Bottom.’ This carried on for some time until he fell backwards into a potted plant. What a company! SHOW 9: THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOON (Robert Lepage, National Theatre 2001) I went to see this show with a group of friends, one of whom was not a theatre goer at all. As we waited to show our tickets at the door to the Lyttelton my friend turned to me and said, "So what’s this Lepage like?" "He’s a real one off," I replied. Just then the usher took our tickets and my friend enquired how long the show was. "Two hours and twenty minutes without an interval," the usher replied. My friend turned as if to go, I stopped her and said, "If you don’t enjoy it I will pay for your ticket." The show was about to start my friend followed me into the auditorium somewhat reluctantly. Now I am not usually a fan of the one person show, finding them inherently untheatrical, but Lepage is a master of the form and pushes its boundaries in extraordinary ways. The Far Side Of The Moon brilliantly combined the story of the space race with a poignant and funny tale of sibling rivalry. It was crammed full with startling imagery and a touching comic sensibility. The sense of transformation was simple but captivating, space babies appearing out of a washing machine, a myriad ways of using an ironing board, and a quite astonishing ending. The time flew by and my reluctant friend was spellbound, so much so that she accompanied me the following evening to a talk with Robert Lepage and Richard Eyre. Lepage was entertaining and revealing, someone asked him about his choice of music, in particular a track by Led Zeppelin. Lepage explained that he always tried to put one thing in his shows that he actively didn’t like. He didn’t like heavy rock music hence the Zeppelin tune, it was almost like a provocation to himself. Someone else asked him how he had arrived at the amazing final sequence of the show; the scene involved Lepage sitting on a chair but the chair was on its back so he had his head facing the audience. At one point Lepage simply rolled away from the chair and with the help of some mirror trickery he appeared to be floating aimlessly in space. Lepage replied that he and his collaborators had been stuck about how the show should end, then one day in their rehearsal room in Montreal, one of the technicians asked a colleague to give him some tape. The technician rolled the tape across the floor and the whole room watched it spinning. This was the inspiration for the ending and I found it very reassuring that Lepage was saying that they stumbled on the ending by mistake rather than it being planned. This demonstrated to me the openness of the process. Lyn Gardner in her review of the show for the Gaurdian described it as ‘Part lecture, part thriller, and part conjuring trick...The entire evening is a marvel.’ I couldn’t agree more. SHOW 10: A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (Young Vic 2014) This show, directed by the Dutch Director Ivo Von Hove caused a stir when it opened at the Young Vic in 2014. I had heard of Von Hove but had never seen any of his work with his own company Toneelgroep Amsterdam. I also knew the Arthur Millar play very well having seen it several times, including the production featuring the acclaimed performance from Michael Gambon at the National in the 1980s. So, it was with some anticipation that I entered the auditorium at the Young Vic to be confronted by a very sparse, open playing area. The performers were simply dressed, the unifying factor being they were all barefoot. I was gripped and intrigued from the start, what I saw unravelling was an essentialising of this extraordinary drama. It was as if Von Hove had done what Millar had always wanted, to present his great work as contemporary Greek tragedy. Millar often complained of the ‘cold hand of naturalism’ being applied to his work, there was nothing like that going on at the Young Vic that night. Gone was the endless often slightly ludicrous recreation of an Italian Friday night dinner, where all I could often think about in previous productions was the poor stage management having to cook and prepare all that food backstage. There was only one prop/piece of furniture in the whole show which Eddie and the incomer Rodolfo compete over to see who can pick it up holding just one leg, at the end of Act 1. The continual, almost subliminal underscoring of Faure’s Requiem created an intense and suffocating atmosphere, culminating in the final seconds when the stage rained blood. The final moments of the play were electrifying when the chorus/narrator figure Alfieri began saying the stage directions as Eddie turns on Marco demanding he take back his accusation and restore his honour. It was a breathtaking evening at the theatre, and for me Von Hove with his landmark production had made redundant any more naturalistic presentations of Millar’s classic.