Exeunt Review of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Dudley Hinton and Sebastian Armesto’s adaptation of the classic 1920 German expressionist film captures the spirit of the original while making it very much their own. This is no easy balance to achieve and yet they do, conveying a respect for the source material while reinventing it in a theatrical context.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of silent cinema’s most influential and disturbing films, a complex piece which is here reworked for the stage by a cast of eight playing multiple roles. The production references the expressionist cinematic style without allowing it to dominate and the energy of the cast successfully evokes the excitement and bustle of a travelling carnival from the outset.
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Dr. Caligari is a sinister fairground sideshow man whose star attraction is the somnambulist, Cesare. While the cast are a true ensemble, Joseph Kloska’s likeable and understated performance gives the piece its heart. He plays the reserved Franzis Gruber, a public records office clerk who is mercilessly picked on by those more powerful than him. Though Gruber is cleverer than these men, they overpower and outrank him, and when two of them are murdered in their beds, it seems plausible even to him that he is responsible.

Sargon Yelda doubles as both of these bullies – as Gruber’s co-worker, Hirst, and his romantic rival, Otto – which is a nice touch, and he plays both of them with a knowing sense of humour. Perhaps Gruber really did sleepwalk to the homes of his enemies and strangle them as they slept – neither we nor he can be certain. Or perhaps the murders are connected instead to Caligari and his ‘patient’, Cesare, a man who never wakes and whose dreams are his reality: it is claimed he can see into the future and he seems to foresee Otto’s murder.

Though there are hints throughout at the larger and darker plot of the film, which has by necessity being simplified here, the production is more a kind of creative reinvention than a straight adaptation, one full of visual and physical resourcefulness, with the cast becoming everything from clocks to fairground attractions. There are no lavish sets and you don’t miss them: simple8 have managed to create spectacle theatre on a tiny budget, making a whole world out of a handful of props and a few pieces of furniture.

The production is a brilliant reminder that there are things of which theatre is capable, that film and television cannot replicate and there’s a certain degree of enjoyment to gained from seeing the joins. This is not a production that wants you to forget you are watching a piece of theatre: it wants you to revel in the process, in the use of sound, in the visual inventiveness. The company want you to think about what they are doing, and why.

Although much of the production’s charm lies in its creative approach, it also displays a real sense of humour in spite of the often bleak and disturbing events its depicts. The whole thing is invested with so much effort and energy that even the most ardent fan of the film won’t fail to appreciate the level of imagination and skill which this talented company brings to the material.