Monday 18 February 2013

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, acknowledged as an early example of expressionist film. Directed by Robert Wiene and released in Weimar Germany in 1920 as a silent movie. More of the film later, but the simple8 theatre company is currently performing a short run at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, of a new play based on the film and I saw it a few nights ago.

It is a difficult story to transfer to the stage. The film was after all a "silent" and a whole script has had to be written to enable the transition from screen to stage. Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton have made a good job of this, convincingly communicating the feel of a small German town shortly after the First World War with its prejudices, snobbery and suspicion of outsiders, which at the same time could be almost any small town anywhere. They also include some amusing references to expressionist themes and techniques - look out for the human clock!

On a more serious note, the play develops some interesting and to some extent disturbing themes. A couple of examples stand out. Oliver Birch was convincing as the mysterious Doctor Caligari in the exercise of power and control. He is confident, evil and bullying - but also to some extent pathetic. The nature of bureaucracy and the "machine" is also examined, including its inability to stop or turn back once it has started to work. Witness the experience of Franzis Gruber played by Joseph Kloska - surely the performance of the night.

The play runs until mid March so I won't give too much away. It will be followed by another simple8 production - a new dramatisation of Moby Dick. It will be interesting to see how this works in the small (and far too hot) basement studio at the Arcola. The programme says that simple8 "...specialise in creating innovative, bold new plays that tackle big ideas using large casts - all on a shoe string budget"- which means the script and the acting have to be good. That shoe string budget also means that the company have to be inventive and lighting, white sheets and shadows are used to full effect in Doctor Caligari. It is a one act, straight through production running for 80 minutes - 80 minutes in which I was in that small town, sharing the anxieties of the characters and feeling concern for the outcome.

Back to 1920 and the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari became one of the most influential expressionist films and is considered one of the greatest horror movies of the silent era. Director Wiene made used of stylised sets with angular and abstract buildings painted on the backdrops and jerky and dancelike movements by the actors. In addition to this, simple techniques involving the use of shadow and of course the lack of colour add to the threatening and disturbing mood of the film. The movie ends a little differently to simple8's production and is credited as having introduced the twist ending in cinema.

Its easy to find the DVD of the movie if you want to see it, and if you want to see it for free, its all on youtube here. If you want to see the play, its running at the Arcola until March 16th. Worth a visit.

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