Features Q&A and Interviews Published 11 February 2013


simple 8 are an ensemble company whose past works include The Four Stages of Cruelty - based on the work of Hogarth - and The Living Unknown Soldier. We spoke to Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton, two of the six core members, about their ambitious new season at the Arcola.
Natasha Tripney

What is it about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari that made you want to adapt it for the stage?

Sebastian Armesto: Just over a year ago, we were pitching around for interesting source material. We thought that German Expressionist films might be an interesting place to look. There was an explosion of cinema at that time in Germany because they’d banned foreign films, but the public were clamouring out for movies. To answer it German filmmakers had to make their films quickly and cheaply. That’s why we looked at them. We thought the constraints they were working under are similar to the constraints we choose to work under. The famous angular painted backdrops of Caligari weren’t born out an ideal, they came from necessity. In a way they were making ‘poor’ cinema and we make ‘poor’ theatre.

Dudley Hinton: We then came across the fabulous The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and crucially, we felt here was something we could add to, rather than just replicate. There were several elements in particular we were drawn to: the idea of a fairground coming to an ordered town and creating chaos, the fact that the film was made in a time of enormous social uncertainty (just after Word War I and just before a massive economic crash) and also that so much of the plot is hinted at rather than fully explored. Most of our work starts from a strong story – this time, it was from snapshots of a story.

The film is probably best known for its influential expressionist cinematography – is this something you’re going to attempt to recreate?

Seb: We’ve never been interested in mimicking the film or recreating it on stage.  We’re trying to bill our show as a new play inspired by the film. Hopefully you’ll recognize the film in our play and it’ll sit in dialogue with it – provocatively and sensitively.

Dudley: I suppose there are nods to expressionism and to the wider film in our production, both stylistically and visually. We’ve tried to experiment with using no text and with the musical scoring (all music is played live on stage by the ensemble). And if one of the aims of expressionism is to unsettle, we hope the show is unsettling too. I mentioned a fairground earlier, and the world of that fair is key to the story we’re telling, and it’s probably an expressionist world really – a world of shadowy corners, of freaks and ghost shows, a place where thrills, lawlessness and blurring realities meet. Alongside this, like a fair, the piece will also be fun and vibrant, with music and fast-moving sideshows.

Are there things that theatre can do and cinema can’t? Does this flow both ways?

Dudley: One of our aims in the show, and with our work in general, is to create stuff out of nothing – in this case a few sheets and some wood, expertly handled by eight actors. That for us is the wonder of theatre, and what sets it apart – the challenge it sets an audience in terms of imagination, and the complicity that needs to exist between the audience and the performers.

The cast of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in rehearsals. All photos by Idil Sukan

The cast of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in rehearsals. All photos by Idil Sukan

You’re simultaneously working on a production of Moby-Dick – a project you mentioned last time we spoke – again what was the appeal here? You don’t seem to be shy of tackling iconic material…

Seb: When I was a kid I lived, for a brief time, in Providence, Rhode Island. We used to go on trips, like to Salem or Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. And we also went to New Bedford and Nantucket and for some reason I got particularly attracted to Whaling. It was for lots of reasons – the shanties, the fact that it produced the world’s candles and oils, literally lighting the world, that it was a huge financial leviathan, but mainly the romance (a little like Ishmael). Then, around six years ago, I heard a shanty (that you’ll hear at the end of our production) that sort of gave me an idea for how and to what end I could stage Moby-Dick. I guess we’ll find out in six weeks whether my idea’s any good.

Tell us a little about simple8’s devising process – where do you begin? Is it different every time?

Dudley: All our work is developed with a group of artists – in this case, around 10 actors were involved as well as writers and directors. We did two full weeks of research and development about three months apart – the first focused on which elements of the existing story we wanted to explore, and which new elements we wanted to devise ourselves. A big challenge for us was paying homage to the film while creating a play that stood on it’s own feet, and told a story that worked theatrically. After the first week we (Seb and I) went away and wrote a very rough skeleton for a script, before a second week of workshopping, where we developed specific scenes and characters, as well as writing a musical theme for the show and trying out some of the more physical sequences, especially any parts we could get away without using any text at all. We then had another five months to write a draft of the script ready for rehearsals, a lot of which we’ve taken great delight in cutting over the last four weeks.

As a company you’re committed to environmental issues and sustainability – how does this apply in the case of these pieces?

Seb: Reducing our impact on the environment is very important to us as a company, and we’re lucky that this sits so well with the style of work we do. The tenets of sustainability – reduce, don’t waste and reuse – are tenets we adhere to when we’re making plays, where the emphasis is on simplicity and actors rather than elaborate sets and effects. In our work we ask ourselves, can we do this effect with just a bit of old wood? Can it be a bit of old wood we’ve used before? It’s the same for the writing and performers – can this scene be simpler? Do I need all these gestures when one will do? Everything in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Moby-Dick is either made out of stuff we’ve used before or stuff of other people’s that we’ve recycled. (For example, the eponymous cabinet will be a coffin in Moby-Dick; part of the set in Moby-Dick is built out of another companies set who didn’t want it).

Dudley: With these two pieces we’re focusing on energy use and audience travel, our two major carbon contributors. We’re welcoming back our hydrogen fuel cell for Moby-Dick, and using a mixture of LED and Tungsten lighting to keep energy output low. Arcola Theatre also have a new wood-powered generator and solar powered heating. Audience travel is a real challenge to be honest, and there’s little we can do (or should do in my opinion) to influence it, save making it as easy as possible to cycle and use public transport. Any ideas very welcome!

Following these two productions is there any other classic film/novel/artwork you’d like to adapt – or will your next project see you turning in a completely different direction?

Dudley: Choosing the next project is always the best bit – it’s all downhill from that moment on! There’s a great weekend where the six of us sit down and talk about what we want to do next – last time that involved watching about seven expressionist films back-to-back. We’re very keen to keep evolving, but I think essentially we’ll do something we’re all excited by. At the moment, we have a project which we’ve done some work on already about a linguist in the Amazonion jungle, and we’re toying with a modern re-relling of an old play, but at the moment it’s completely open, and that’s very exciting. I certainly don’t think we’ll do any adaptations of books for a long time – Moby-Dick was a one-off in that regard, because it was such an appealing project, and something Seb has wanted to do for so long.

The simple8 season at the Arcola Theatre, London, will run from 12th February – 4th May 2013. For further details on both productions visit the Arcola website.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.



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