Photo by Jonathan Keenan
For an anarchic theatre company who excel in inventive, fantastical devised pieces, performing the 1920s classic The Ghost Train might seem a mad next move. But the more I talk to Paul Hunter – co-founder and co-artistic director of Told By An Idiot – the more I understand that the Idiots favour an organised brand of chaos.
The Ghost Train is a thrilling tale of a group of travellers stranded at a haunted railway station. Flickering lights, thundering sound effects, and the ability to terrify children so much they want to see it again, The Ghost Train was Arnold Ridley’s greatest hit. Behind the steeped history of a classic, it is on the right tracks for Told By An Idiot with its ensemble and comedic potential.
“It might sound like a contradiction, but we’re very serious about comedy…” says Hunter. “And The Ghost Train gave us the challenge of mixing comedy and a ghost story. I think a couple of productions have chosen not to develop the comedy in the piece, which is there I think, but I chose very deliberately to accentuate it”. Behind the Idiot’s comedy is often seriousness, and The Ghost Train is no different with its perilous plot. “We need someone so scared they start laughing,” Hunter once directed, unsurprisingly for a member of company who say they are “fascinated by the fine line between comedy and tragedy” on their website.
Launching The Ghost Train innovatively was not challenge enough. Though Hunter believes The Royal Exchange in Manchester is one of the best spaces in the country, surely he must admit to the headache of playing the script in the round? “Yes,” says Hunter quickly, but also points out that a stage surrounded by audience on all sides demands the creativity that the Idiots are so famous for. “It feels like performing in the street. You wouldn’t just stand in rows watching it, but form circles around it. I think there’s something very democratic about that configuration…. It means all the things that normally happen off stage have to happen on stage, which provides some really good theatrical challenges.”
The Idiot’s choice to perform in the round reflects their love for artifice. “You can always seem someone else in the audience, especially in the round, and you realise that this is clearly artificial. But something artificial doesn’t need to be a bad thing. It can have immense power and conviction…Artificiality celebrates what makes theatre unique and different to everything else – it’s a live experience… We have no interest in trying to recreate reality in any sort, we try to create theatre that is bigger than life, and we revel in the artifice of performance”.
When I ask if being so irreverent towards a classic scares him, Hunter says he “passionately believe that the play – however brilliantly written it is – is essentially words on a page. For me, theatre only happens when someone does something.” A fresh version of a classic, he believes, it not disrespectful to the script. Instead, the Idiots respect the live experience of theatre and rejoice in including the audience in the fun.
Hunter’s first experience of the play was an amateur dramatic performance, and thinks amateur groups are so famously drawn to the script for similar reasons to the Idiot’s, as it “offers a real diversity of parts for men and women, which is what you need in an amateur group, and it offers certain challenges”. I suggest it is a testament to the lightness and accessibility of their name and identity – for a group that refers to its members as ‘idiots’ – that they share interests with amateur groups.
“Being accessible does not mean dumbing it down,” says Hunter. The Idiots use their rehearsal process to play and create ideas in an organic, communal way with mind never to be boring. “Some of our best ideas come from chaos, mistakes, and things going wrong.” In a way, the Idiots play like children. Fittingly, Hunter ends the interview by quoting the man behind Pixar, whose target audience is “anybody who is breathing”. Likewise, Hunter aims his play at anyone who wants “a really good evening or afternoon of family entertainment. It’s highly inventive, but it’s incredibly accessible”.
The Ghost Train is playing The Royal Exchange until 20 June. For more information and tickets, see their website.