Tag Archive | "John Wright"

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Feature: Celebrating 21 years of Told by an Idiot – “A brilliant combination of excitement and fear”

Posted on 07 March 2014 by Lee Anderson


During our conversation, Paul Hunter – Co-Artistic Director of Told by an Idiot – says something rather unexpected: “One of our heroes is Miles Davies, because aside from his extraordinary music and creativity, he never settled and he constantly changed things.” Now, on the surface of things, this might seem an unusual comparison to get one’s head around. Upon closer inspection, though, it serves to underline those factors that give this company its unique edge. Since forming in 1993, Told by an Idiot has made its name creating uproarious performances that combine playful storytelling, buffoonery and a pervasive sense of unpredictability. Jazz music’s emphasis on improvised rhythms and a ‘moment-by-moment’ reinvention are fitting expressions for this company’s restless creativity. “We work very hard at trying to be spontaneous, because I think that kind of spontaneity and ‘liveness’ is what theatre does better than anything else.”

Over the course of their 21 years creating work, the company has explored a divergent range of ideas and topics. It has adapted films and novels, tackled Shakespeare, revived classics and devised entirely original work. This wide-ranging imaginative palette has given the company a reputation for being more than a little bit unpredictable. In today’s cash-strapped climate, caution has become the better part of valour for many companies and venues. Do these restraints mean that Told by an Idiot’s desire to reinvent itself with each new production has become more difficult? “We were very conscious of not wanting to repeat ourselves. For us, there was a big danger in that. When you have a success, people want the same thing. But we can’t do that. I know in some ways that makes it harder for venues to sell us, because they can’t do it off the back of the previous show. But I think at the heart of what we do remains the notion of this very playful, rather anarchic, often poetic spirit.”

The idea behind Told by an Idiot began when Paul Hunter and Hayley Carmichael (Co-Artistic Director) were completing their acting training at Middlesex Polytechnic in 1986. Under the tutelage of an influential teacher, John Wright, Hunter and Carmichael began to envisage the possibility of creating original work from scratch. “One of the earliest things he challenged us with was the notion of making our own work. I think that the best teaching, in terms of theatre work, is a brilliant combination of excitement and fear. When we left, he suggested to us that we should make something together. We got terribly excited. But the irony was that when met up in a café in Camden Town, we couldn’t come up with any ideas!” Their collective imaginations sparked into life when the group discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that would go on to form the basis of their first production, On the Verge of Exploding (1993). This bold and bravely non-literal adaptation of Garcia’s novel garnered great acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the production going on to tour Romania and Johannesburg. Looking back over this time, it was clearly a formative turning point for the company. Still, as Hunter explains, the aims at the time felt a lot less momentous to begin with: “I would love to say we had this great mission when we began, but I don’t think we did. I think the bottom line for us in forming a company was being able to say we made something of our own that no one else had ever done before. Regardless of whether people thought it was rubbish or not – it was ours.”

If there is a constant, underlying factor within Told by an Idiot’s work, it stems from its unapologetic celebration of theatre itself. Through a rejection of mimesis, it embraces the trickery and craftiness of performance in all its glory. “One of the strengths of theatre is its very artifice. It’s by acknowledging this artifice that you can find a different sort of truth.” By revelling in artifice, Told by an Idiot has developed a performance style that combines savage comedy with a disquieting undercurrent of the tragic and macabre. This blurring of form is an essential element for its latest piece, Never Try This At Home. Currently playing at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Told by an Idiot’s latest endeavour explores the darker side of children’s television. Set in the fictional world of Saturday morning television show, Shushi, the piece explores the manic world of custard pies and over-the-top presenters which have long been a touchstone in children’s entertainment. “Over the last few years, we’ve been inspired by things that have happened in real life. I remembered that as an eight-year-old, a family friend took me on the TV show, Tiswas. I was in the cage where they threw buckets of water and custard pies at us. We came up with a show that was inspired by that and celebrates that wildness and pushes the anarchy that is in our work.” The surreal and chaotic world of children’s television is an ideal arena for Told by an Idiot to play in. Its work retains a rambunctious and sometimes darkly mischievous quality, and children’s television is the perfect space in which to demonstrate its talents and explore the darker side of all the reckless, pie-throwing fun.

Finally, I end my conversation with Hunter by asking him what lessons he has learned as a theatre maker with Told by an Idiot. I ask him if there are any shards of wisdom he could pass on to the artists and companies starting to create work today? “Choose your critics carefully,” he advises. “You’ll be inundated with people who will have an opinion on what you should do, and it’s very important you listen to a lot of these things. But it’s also important to hold on to what you believe something is about.” He believes passionately in the bonds between creative people and in the importance of forging strong relationships with one another: “At the heart of making something is something else that binds people together. You might not even be able to put your finger on it. But it’s an understanding that goes quite deep.”

For more information on Told by an Idiot, visit its website. Never Try This At Home is at Birmingham Rep until 15 March, then tours to Sheffield Crucible (18-22 Mar) Traverse (26-29 Mar) and Soho Theatre (2-26 April).



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The Summer House

Posted on 05 March 2012 by Imogen Sarre

The Summer House gate theatre
Self-evidently devised by the performers themselves, and ably directed by John Wright, The Summer House centres around a stag night in Iceland that goes horribly awry, with some bizarre intermissions when the cast of three play Vikings and some of their gods. Providing an insightful and truthful foray into male habits, psyche and insecurities, this play exploits every moment for its comedy, whilst its comments on masculinity and heritage are made interesting by a refreshing use of special effects and a playful approach to realism.

The play does not flinch from revealing that, however chilled out and bantersome the three men may be whilst things are rosy, immaturity will rear its ugly head when the edifice of fun starts to collapse. With a male camaraderie that is at its most overt (and successful) when safe from the prying and judging eyes of others, it is astonishingly credible how speedily panic or recklessness can take over this male bravado at the first hint of a problem. Setting this at a stag do, when the men are mentally and physically on the cusp of both embracing and escaping the irresponsibility of youth, is a brilliant decision. The script and performers carefully oscillate between the two perspectives: stricken faces at the prospect of intruding an unknown person’s home contrasts with the wanton loss of restraint as they later wreck it; Will’s sweetly helpless reversion to his hefty bum bag in times of trouble is complemented by its use to enhance his exuberant hip thrusts; whilst Matthew’s asides to best man Will (remember the digital cameras on the wedding tables) expose the men’s inability to totally escape from their real-life cares into fantasy fun.

A play from, for and about young people, there is much that I can relate to. On reading the programme afterwards, I discover that I have inadvertently become on first name terms with both actors and characters. That the cast of The Summer House decided not to distinguish between their real and character names seems fitting: the thoroughness and ease with which these very credible people are drawn and executed suggests that the characters we see onstage are extensions of the actors’ real personalities. Incisively observational from the start, the play opens with a car scene: with the third head enthusiastically crammed between the two in the front seats, driver Neil gormlessly and half-heartedly bops along to music as he drives, the image made complete by his mouth-half-open murmurings. Throughout the rest of the performance, the cast pays similarly meticulous attention to unconscious mannerisms, affording us a sneaky peak into how we interact, as seen from the outside. The characters (especially worrier Will) are eminently likeable, and their comedic abilities shine through with some real gems as the production good-naturedly pokes fun at them.

The play’s attitude to realism is perverse and fantastically effective: taking great lengths to create naturalistic effects (e.g. with steam and water sounds), conspicuous absences (the Jacuzzi itself), and the fact we can see both the smoke machine and bucket of water that are being splashed around at every entrance and exit, makes the carefully considered rituals of naturalism wonderfully noticeable. Deftly incorporating props into the action enables us to see the house from afar, believe they are sitting in a Jacuzzi, and move from outside to inside worlds with only the shooshing of an imaginary door, to name but a few effects. The link between the main scenes of naturalism and those of the Vikings and gods is never presented as being anything more than tenuous, yet the playful imaginativeness and fantastic comedy of these intermissions enables them to add effective complexity, intrigue and entertainment. Michael Vale’s superb design (the earthquake effect makes for a particularly impressive conclusion) is in perfect harmony with Wright’s exciting directorial vision, whilst the quality acting from all three performers makes for a brilliantly unusual evening out – though one which is almost definitely focused towards the enjoyment of younger audience.

The Summer House is playing at the Gate Theatre until 24 March. For more information and tickets see the Gate Theatre’s website.


Imogen Sarre

Imogen Sarre

Imogen Sarre founded and manages theatre reviewing sites based in Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She blogs and reviews theatre, is a script reader for Theatre 503, and currently does digital marketing at Ambassador Theatre Group.

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Review: The Fahrenheit Twins, Told by an Idiot

Posted on 23 November 2009 by Jake Orr

The Fahrenheit Twins by Told by an Idiot

Told by an Idiot, the collective theatre duo of Hayley Carmichael, and Paul Hunter (not forgetting John Wright dished on the side) are back in full force with a new piece, The Fahrenheit Twins currently playing as part of the Bite programme at the Barbican Pit Theatre. Bringing together their adaptation of Michel Faber’s book of the same name, Told by an Idiot along with director Matthew Dunster have created a surreal landscape of snow, a childs playground.

There is something quite striking about The Fahrenheit Twins when first entering the Pit Theatre. There is no way of missing Naomi Wilkinson’s set design, a circular rotating disc of white fabric and fur, complete with a slide that reaches to the heights of the lighting rig. A wind turbine off to one side that reaches from ground to ceiling. The expanse of fur and white, it’s like something out of a muted Salvador Dali painting. Coupled with Gareth Fry’s frolicking playful music, it’s all something of a winter wonderland.

A slightly surreal moment, the husky experience

I suppose that is exactly how Told by an Idiot want us to view this piece, through the goggles of a surreal storytelling of two twins, Tainto’lilth and Marko’cain who live with their parents deep in the Artic in an exploration station. The twins are played by Carmichael and Hunter, along with every other character. They change swiftly from parents to child, to animal with a slight change of costume and a different voice. The effect is actually quite impressive for something so simple.

There are undoubtedly some poignant moments throughout this piece, but there was something nagging away at me as I watched this. I know that Told by an Idiot are a superb theatre company, with a great track record. The set design and music, along with Philip Gladwell’s lighting design all combined to make for a spectacle of the eyes and ears, so it wasn’t this aspect nagging at me. It was rather, Carmichael and Hunter’s performance itself. Whilst the piece itself is an intriguing tale – its execution didn’t quite live up to what was expected.

The playground experience of theatre

The peformance of The Fahrenheit Twins didn’t flat line, it wasn’t dead and emotionless, but it lacked some kind of energy. Certain moments became repetitive and at times I didn’t quite understand what or even why this was being shown. Particularly the continual use of the husky masks. Whilst at times comic, during other moments it became over-done. Don’t get me wrong, The Fahrenheit Twins is to some extent an enjoyable piece, but one to stick in my mind for a long time? No, I think not.

Told by an Idiot under the direction of Dunster have created a playful piece, where the performers really do create a winter wonderland out of Wilkinson’s set, which has been designed in a multi-functional way, compartments dotted across the stage hiding most of the props and added surprises.

Sliding across the stage and manipulating fabric into the form of their dead mother, the tale is actually quite heart warming. The twins wanting to find a way to bury their dead mother, head into the Artic with the hope that there will be a sign from somewhere as to what they are meant to do. Throwing themselves against the elements of the Artic weather, their support for each other and their maturity in desperate times is lovingly shown by Carmichael and Hunter.

Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter

If you’re looking to see devised theatre that doesn’t quite enter the world of nonsense but equally creates a surreal landscape and story, then The Fahrenheit Twins is certainly for you. In fact, I’d implore anyone who is interested in a different theatre night out to embark on Told by an Idiot’s new piece. I’ve not been put off but excited by what will come next out of this company.

The Fahrenheit Twins by Told by an Idiot is running until 5th December 2009. Check out the Barbican website for details on booking and also Told by an Idiot’s website for past shows and company information.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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