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 Home. My 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.”
Never Try This At Home is at the Sheffield Crucible until 22nd March, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh 26th – 29th March, then at Soho Theatre 2nd – 27th April.