I am Thomas, Wilton’s Music Hall


Originally written for Exeunt.

When is the right time to speak up? That’s one of the questions lurking amidst the chaos and clutter of Told by an Idiot’s latest show, which tells the story of one person – Thomas Aikenhead – who spoke up at precisely the wrong time. Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. Was this obscure, unlikely hero a champion of free speech, or just a kid who didn’t know when to shut his mouth?

Hearing the name Thomas Aikenhead, audiences might well ask – in the words of one of the show’s many songs – “who the fuck is he?” A footnote in British history, Aikenhead was the last person to be executed for blasphemy in this country in 1697. Just 20 when he died, he was a curious and opinionated student who fell foul of higher powers and paranoias – in particular, those of James Stewart, Lord Advocate of Scotland, who made an example of the hapless Aikenhead.

Of course, this is Told by an Idiot, so it’s no straightforward telling. The company bring their characteristic dark humour and lovable silliness to Aikenhead’s tale, as well as a collection of tunes penned by Iain Johnstone and Simon Armitage. The result is Brecht/Weill musical theatre meets the broad, belly-laughing comedy of the music hall (rather appropriately for the gorgeous surroundings of Wilton’s). There’s also an attempt to highlight the present day resonance of Aikenhead’s fate, putting the game eight-strong company in a dressing-up-box hodge-podge of period and modern costume and framing the central story with a group of Edinburgh officials squabbling over who to commemorate with a new statue in the city.

The narrative, meanwhile, is shot through with glimpses of others who were at odds with or ahead of their time: a Bowie T-shirt, a Sex Pistols record, an Einstein dream sequence. Whether Told by an Idiot are lobbying for a place for Aikenhead in the same line-up, however, is unclear. When he sings with passion and lyricism about the importance of the truth, he becomes a beacon of rationalism and progress. But then elsewhere it’s his ordinariness that’s underlined. Like any inquisitive and gobby student, he’s just trying to make his mark in whatever way he can.

Told by an Idiot seem, at times, to be having their cake and eating it. Take the title, emblazoned across pieces of clothing worn by various members of the cast. The role of Thomas is thus passed around, never resting for too long on any one person’s shoulders. The message is twofold. On the one hand, any of us could be Thomas, an ordinary young man who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s nothing special. On the other hand, though, “I Am Thomas” is just one step away from “Je suis Charlie” (and barely half a step away at one pointed moment in the show), turning this unlucky, outspoken student into a tragic symbol of free speech.

The show’s aesthetic is no less busy and contradictory. At some moments, it’s a political thriller, with the church’s spies lurking in dark corners clad in trench coats and shades. At others, it becomes a game, commentated on by two Match of the Day pundits (“nice move there from Stewart”; “that’s definitely a yellow card offence”). Pop cultural references are everywhere, from comic-book backdrops to snippets of dialogue from Jaws and The Life of Brian. There is, in other words, a lot going on. Too much, I begin to think. However brilliantly performed by the cast, whose energy doesn’t let up for a moment, the sheer quantity of different skits can become distracting, garnishing rather than actually telling Aikenhead’s tale.

Perhaps, though, it’s right that Told by an Idiot don’t close down this story; that they don’t make it definitively either a celebration of free speech or a simple tale of misfortune. Like the potential statue bickered over by the Edinburgh councillors, figures such as Aikenhead mean different things to different people. He’s available as a symbol of the pursuit of truth and equally as an example of foolishness, just as Stewart can be seen as a great reformer or a bullying authoritarian. Who the fuck is Thomas Aikenhead? Whoever you want him to be.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Told by an Idiot


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.

Playing the Fool


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.”

School Links Are Proving an Education

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Originally written for The Stage.

In straitened times, collaboration is a word that seems to be constantly on the lips of those working in theatre. While this is no reason to drop the fight for arts funding, financial challenges have had the silver lining of producing a number of surprising but fruitful partnerships, be they between fellow artists, artists and venues, or across organisations.

Among these collaborations, some of the most creative and supportive are those that have developed between theatre makers and higher education institutions. This is not a new link, as universities and drama schools have long nurtured the next generation’s theatre makers, but now several organisations are looking at how to strengthen, build and innovate these connections, offering benefits that go both ways.

In many cases, such partnerships are born out of financial necessity. Clean Break, for example, have a 14-year, “multi-faceted” relationship with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which was originally part of a funded education initiative, but their more recent partnerships with institutions including the University of the Arts and Rose Bruford had “an economic imperative” alongside the broader goal of widening participation. Director and writer Vicky Jones, meanwhile, admits that a real advantage of DryWrite’s partnership with Oxford School of Drama is that they do not have to raise funds for the projects they collaborate on.

Although higher education institutions are also facing cuts, universities and drama schools usually still have more resources at their disposal than independent artists – resources which are increasingly being shared. James Stenhouse, one half of performance duo Action Hero, explains that a great benefit of their relationship with the University of Chichester is the opportunity this affords them to make work in a well resourced environment, an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Often the starting point for more extended partnerships is a simple teaching relationship which then develops into something deeper. Practitioners from Clean Break regularly deliver lectures for Central, while the foundation of DryWrite’s relationship with Oxford School of Drama is the company’s collaboration on the students’ third year show, which forms a cornerstone of their course. DryWrite now work to deliver a “unique and bespoke” final piece with third year students, bringing in playwrights such as Patrick Marber, Penelope Skinner and James Graham.

However, as Stenhouse is keen to point out, independent theatre makers do not necessarily have to take on regular teaching posts in order to make a living. Despite Action Hero’s long relationship with the University of Chichester, neither Stenhouse nor fellow artist Gemma Paintin are on the staff, and Stenhouse stresses the danger of getting “caught in a loop where we’re training the next generation of artists to teach the next generation of artists”.

In an attempt to break this loop, several of the organisations nurturing such relationships point to their vital role in bridging the gap between higher education and the reality of the theatre industry. At the most basic level, theatre companies working in partnership with higher education organisations can offer work experience for students, but often relationships extend much further than this.

Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, whose relationship with RADA was the product of “completely artistic reasons”, explains that the school’s principal Edward Kemp was “very interested in the notion of actors making more of their own work”. As a result, Told by an Idiot have begun developing work with students right from its earliest stages, a practice that they hope to build on. Similarly, one of the crucial aims of the University of Chichester’s relationship with Action Hero – and, more recently, with artists’ collective Forest Fringe – is to offer their students a real sense of what it means to be a working artist.

While most of these relationships have developed through a combination of necessity, accident and artistic curiosity, the longstanding partnership between Accidental Collective and the University of Kent has roots that go back as far as the company’s inception. When co-artistic directors Daisy Orton and Pablo Pakula decided that they wanted to make work together after graduating, the university offered them the opportunity to become their first supported graduate company, acting as “guinea pigs” for a new initiative to retain theatre makers in the region.

The company have since taught at the university, collaborated with academics on a number of research projects, events and publications, and established Pot Luck, a performance platform supporting contemporary theatre makers in Kent. “It’s set us on a very particular path,” says Pakula, recognising how rooted they now are in the local area. “Our practice has been strongly shaped by the region, and by our position between the university and the region. We have, in some ways, acted as a bridge.”

For Sam Hodges, the new artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre, it is important that the theatre’s relationship with the University of Southampton – on whose campus it sits – stretches further than just its arts departments. Since taking the reins he has been working simultaneously on a number of new initiatives, many of which link the activities of the theatre with the university’s leading science and engineering departments, with the aim of creating a “pooled vision and strategy”.

“It makes sense that in a bid to perfectly reflect and embody the qualities of its environment, the theatre should create work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating, provide opportunities of training and professional development, and develop a profile and reputation which reaches well beyond Southampton into the national and international field,” Hodges explains.

Perhaps the most exciting element of these emerging partnerships is their potential to create unique and unexpected outcomes, often through the collision of different artistic approaches. Hodges’ attempt to bring together art and science is one such instance, while the pairing of Told by an Idiot’s highly visual aesthetic with the more traditional actor training of RADA is another prime example. These unanticipated benefits can even have international reach, as with the cultural exchange that the University of Chichester have helped to establish between Action Hero, Forest Fringe and a group of artists in San Francisco.

The real opportunity of these new collaborations, as Hunter recognises, is to open up both artists and students to new possibilities. “Sometimes I think you can learn and be provoked more by going to a place that feels different, rather than aligning yourself always with people who feel familiar.”

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