Told by an Idiot

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Originally written for The Stage.

If there’s one thing that defines Told by an Idiot, it is collaboration. “I still hold with the notion that theatre is the most collaborative of art forms,” says Paul Hunter, the company’s co-founder and artistic director. “I think theatre’s at its best when it properly collaborates, so that’s always the starting point for us: the idea of collaboration.”

Collaboration, though, has meant many different things over the company’s 22-year life. It began with a focus on the actor, moving on to work with poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage and writers such as Carl Grose. The 2004 production I’m a Fool to Want You enlisted jazz musicians to capture episodes from the life of French writer Boris Vian, while in 2013 it forged an actor collaboration of a different kind with Edward Petherbridge on My Perfect Mind, a show inspired by Petherbridge’s stroke.

Hayley Carmichael, another of Told by an Idiot’s founders, insists that the shows – while different – all share the same philosophy at heart.

“Even if the starting point is brought to the room by one of us, what happens next is that everyone in the room is a collaborator and takes part in the collaborative process, which for us will always make the end result richer.”

Read the rest of the interview.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

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Playing the Fool

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There is a common misconception about the origin of Told by an Idiot’s name. Most people tend to assume – “quite understandably”, co-artistic director Paul Hunter admits – that it is a quote from Macbeth. Instead, it acts as a gesture towards the company’s perspective. The Idiots aren’t interested in typical heroes; they prefer to look at narratives from the edges, picking up the fools who usually provide the comic relief and dumping them right in the centre of the action.

This skewing of narrative focus says a lot about Told by an Idiot’s approach. The company, who are this year celebrating their 21st anniversary, are committed to their own distinctive brand of theatrical anarchy, one that walks a giddy tightrope between the silly and the serious. Using comedy as a vital tool, they bring clowning to dark or cerebral topics in a way that makes their theatre accessible without sacrificing intelligence.

“I don’t think theatre should be elite,” insists Hunter. “Not to say that you still can’t do difficult, interesting, profound things, but you can do that in such a way that lots of people can engage in it.”

Their current production, Never Try This At Home, is a case in point. The show, which playfully prods at the dark underbelly of 1970s children’s TV, was born out of a provocation from Birmingham Rep’s artistic director Roxana Silbert. Asked to work on a show rooted in the city, Birmingham born and bred Hunter lighted upon a memorable childhood appearance on Tiswas, the chaotic Saturday morning magazine show that was recorded in Birmingham’s ATC/Central television studios. Although Hunter and the company were always interested in exploring the uncomfortable edge of the behaviour exhibited on such shows, real life events soon overtook the piece they were working on.

“When we started two years ago, none of this was in the news at all,” says Hunter, alluding to the Operation Yewtree revelations that now form an unavoidable backdrop for the show. While Hunter insists that this cannot be hidden or ignored, he was keen that the show remained “robustly comic” and operated on its own terms, rather than becoming a vehicle for exploring the scandals unfolding in the news.

“For a show that’s incredibly anarchic, we were very rigorous about how we presented the material,” Hunter explains, adding, “I was very clear that I wanted a completely fictitious world.” Their fabricated Tiswas equivalent is Shushi, a show that was abruptly cancelled in the seventies following an escalating series of catastrophes broadcast live on air. While there are certainly parallels with real behaviour and situations, Hunter stresses that the show’s power lies in its lack of specificity. “As soon as it becomes specific, it becomes too small,” he argues. “Because theatre’s a metaphor, for me it doesn’t hold a lot of water when you become too literal.”

Watching back old footage of Tiswas and its like during the research and development of the show has been an eye-opening experience for the company. “Even stuff that’s seemingly innocent, you go wow, I can’t believe they’re doing that,” says Hunter. This contemporary vantage point is reflected in the staging of the piece, which is framed with a modern day documentary looking back at Shushi’s demise. This structure allows audiences to challenge the habitually misogynistic and racist attitudes they see in the seventies segments, Hunter explains, but also to question the behaviour of the 21st century presenter, whose prejudices are “more insidious and more subtle”.

 

The bold discomfort of the piece – “there are moments when it’s literally buttock-clenching” – is layered with Told by an Idiot’s characteristic humour and anarchy. The chaos, confusion and custard pies of shows like Tiswas have all been retained, while brave front row audience members are being ominously equipped with plastic macs. “It sort of explodes off the stage,” warns Hunter.

While Never Try This At Home stops just shy of direct audience involvement in the action, Told by an Idiot have always believed in the importance of acknowledging an audience’s presence; “we never ignore them,” Hunter emphasises. This awareness of the live theatrical situation, he believes, is central to the work’s success, and is what it can offer audiences over film and television.

“We want the feeling that we are making it up,” Hunter says simply. This, he recalls, was the primary impetus behind Told by an Idiot’s formation in the early nineties: “Initially it wasn’t about starting a company, it was about doing a show, and it was about doing a show that was ours, that we had made up”. After the success of that first show, On The Verge of Exploding, the company quickly settled on another driving creative principle for their work: not doing the same thing twice.

As if to demonstrate the variety of their output, the other show that Told by an Idiot have coming up this year is a world away from the custard pies and casual sexism of Never Try This At HomeMy Perfect Mind, returning for a second run at the Young Vic in September, intertwines the story of classical actor Edward Petherbridge’s recovery from a stroke with text from King Lear, the title role of which Petherbridge was rehearsing for at the time of the stroke. The show is performed by Petherbridge and Hunter; a Lear and his fool.

It is, in many ways, an improbable pairing. “On paper, the notion of me and Edward Petherbridge as a double act is very unlikely,” Hunter concedes. But Told by an Idiot have a habit of seeking out challenging and surprising collaborations, from working with poet Carol Ann Duffy to being commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Typically, these partnerships are the result of a gut instinct on the part of the company. “I use the word hunch a lot,” says Hunter. “It’s just a feeling about something.”

While on paper My Perfect Mind’s premise is absurd, in practice Hunter’s hunch pays off. Petherbridge’s theatrical anecdotes and acerbic asides are delicately balanced by Hunter’s zany tomfoolery, just as the tragic poetry of Lear is offset by the clowning that surrounds it. Here, in the marriage between the solemn and the ridiculous, is where Hunter and Told by an Idiot have drawn the creative inspiration that has kept them going for the last 21 years. “That’s what interests me, that you can have those moments of comic ludicrousness right up against some of the most extraordinary writing ever written.”

My Perfect Mind, Young Vic

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The stage for Told by an Idiot’s latest show is decidedly wonky. Michael Vale’s white platform design is raised at one side, the other side sloping dangerously downwards; the props that sit on it valiantly fight against gravity, occasionally losing and sliding helplessly down the smooth surface. It’s an off-kilter setting for an off-kilter show, a cheeky nod to the zaniness and confusion to come. It also creates an inbuilt sense of battle, of upward struggle. The performers must always climb uphill or come tumbling down.

The defiant yet playful struggle in question is that of actor Edward Petherbridge, who in 2007 suffered a severe stroke just two days into rehearsals for a production of King Lear in New Zealand. What he has constructed together with Told by an Idiot and presented on stage with co-performer Paul Hunter is a recovery of sorts, though it’s never quite that simple. Instead, this is a piece of theatre as complex, messy and densely layered as the mind itself, jumping frenetically from memory to fantasy to present thought, barely pausing to take a breath. The result is a mad blend of stream of consciousness and wacky comedy, a gloriously surreal journey through Petherbridge’s experience that ends up being as much about theatre as it is about the human mind.

With an acting career spanning more than half a century, including a stint in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company in the 1960s, it’s somewhat inevitable that an excavation of Petherbridge’s mind will be teeming with theatrical anecdotes. Olivier himself makes regular, hilarious cameos, while other names that Petherbridge drops with relish include Noel Coward and Ian McKellen. More than just a series of wistful showbiz reminiscences, however, My Perfect Mind also unpicks the very concept of drama, staging a constant slippage between several different overlapping fictions and realities. In this sense, the workings of theatre reflect the workings of the mind; we, like the performers, are always negotiating a number of different identities, always treading a delicate line between truth and imagination, with the two sometimes indistinguishable.

The most prominent of the fictions being juggled is King Lear, the text of which is studded throughout the show that Petherbridge, Hunter and director Kathryn Hunter have pieced together through devising and improvisation. This element of the piece is tragic in more than the Shakespearean sense, as we’re frequently confronted with the spectacle of a man snatching at a role that was cruelly wrenched away from him. The show is both Petherbridge’s chance to finally be Lear – at times with mournful, compelling commitment – and his poignant admission that this dream role will most likely continue to elude him. Instead he’s offered a fool’s version of Lear, in which the tears are just as likely to be induced by laughter as sadness.

And it is very funny. Told by an Idiot’s distinctive brand of humour is madcap and chaotic – all wigs and clowning and racing around the stage. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a neat fit with classical actor Petherbridge, but in practice it works beautifully. He and Hunter make a fantastic if unlikely double act, Petherbridge veering between unabashed, self-mocking luvviness and wearily sardonic asides, while Hunter is every inch the witty, mischievous fool, rapidly switching roles to play all the other figures populating Petherbridge’s memories. It’s rough around the edges, revelling in its own thrown together quality, but always knowing. Beneath that archness there’s also something tender and quietly hopeful, recognising the fragility of human life while celebrating the reviving reinvention of the stage. At the heart of it all is a theatrical cliché made fresh by its own promise of renewal: the show must go on.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

A Stroke of Genius

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Originally written for Scout London.

“I suppose circumstances have conspired to make some kind of happy ending,” actor Edward Petherbridge reflects, a smile in his voice. It’s an unlikely comment, given that Petherbridge is discussing the major stroke that he experienced while rehearsing for a production of King Lear in New Zealand in 2007. One day he was preparing for one of the greatest tragic roles in the theatrical canon; the next, he was barely able to move.

Petherbridge describes the “episode” – he rarely uses the word stroke – as “completely unexpected and swift and sudden”. But while the stroke initially left him physically debilitated, unable to even move his thumb and index finger together, he soon discovered that the role of Lear was still stubbornly lodged in his mind, word for word. It was this extraordinary discovery, paired with a continuing fascination with the part he was robbed of, that eventually led to Petherbridge’s “happy ending” in the form of a show in which he finally gets to play Lear – sort of.

“I said to Paul Hunter in an idle moment when we were doing The Fantasticks together that I thought we could take a two-man Lear to the Edinburgh Festival,” Petherbridge explains. “He said, ‘well I might have a better idea than that, which is a show about you not doing Lear’.” The final product, emerging from a process of improvisation and devising, is My Perfect Mind, currently on tour ahead of a run at the Young Vic. Marrying Petherbridge’s experience with chunks of text from King Lear, co-deviser and performer Hunter describes the piece as a “strange, dreamlike journey through Edward’s brain”. Petherbridge plays himself and Lear, while Hunter single-handedly takes on all the other roles, from Petherbridge’s doctor to Lear’s fool.

“I don’t think either of us knew quite what the show would be that we might come up with, and I’m still rather amazed at what it is,” Petherbridge admits. Despite the trauma of the stroke, he tells me that there was little hesitation in taking Hunter up on his initial suggestion and mining those difficult experiences for theatrical material. This surprising lack of trepidation might even have something to do with the consequences of the stroke itself. “I heard on the radio not long after the stroke that the synapses that generate regret are often disabled by the brain damage that comes with it,” Petherbridge says by way of explanation.

While the nightly re-enactment of such a painful episode might sound challenging and emotionally exhausting, Petherbridge plays down these difficulties, turning again to Lear. “Someone asked me last night whether I found it at all painful or difficult,” he says, “but it’s no more painful than Lear’s much more gargantuan difficulties; mine pale into invisibility when compared with his.” He pauses for a moment, before adding, “and if acting isn’t a pleasurable experience, why do it?” This joy for acting and the theatre, which has clearly driven Petherbridge’s long and successful career, seems to have had an almost medicinal effect in the aftermath of the stroke and throughout the process of making this show. Indeed, Petherbridge refers to it fondly as “doctor theatre”.

Despite Petherbridge’s openness to chronicling his experiences for the stage, however, dealing with such personal subject matter has not been unproblematic. Hunter is frank is about the occasional discomfort of his own position in the process, saying “I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I went ‘is this OK?’” He also speaks about the “responsibility” of what they are doing in grappling with this topic, but he emphasises the importance of comedy in the piece. “I think the thing that was really key was the sensitivity around the stroke, because Edward was very clear that he didn’t want to dwell on that too much or in any way to become maudlin or sentimental, and I think we’ve avoided that by treading quite lightly around it.”

The result, told in the absurd and madcap style characteristic of Hunter’s theatre company Told by an Idiot, is dreamlike and ever-shifting, rapidly jumping between Petherbridge’s life and the fictional world of Lear. As Petherbridge puts it, “it’s like a kaleidoscope of different bits of my life that Paul has shaken up”. There’s an evident connection between content and form, narrating the brain’s complex recovery from trauma in a way that reflects the extraordinary and often unexpected quirks of the human mind.

“To see the show might be like going to a seminar on Lear when you’ve taken a dose of LSD,” Petherbridge goes on to suggest, with evident glee at the comparison. “I know nothing about LSD firsthand,” he continues, “but I believe there are good and bad trips. I am hoping that the experience of seeing the show is a good trip.”

Photo: Manuel Harlan