Telegraph Review of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
When Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer’s horror film was first released in 1920, nobody had seen much like it before. The tale of the ominous Dr Caligari and his spooky sleepwalking fairground attraction has since been hailed as a masterpiece of Expressionist cinema, its pioneering use of sets and twist ending much admired and a source of influence to countless filmmakers including Tim Burton and David Cronenberg.
Thankfully, theatre company Simple8 haven’t tried to replicate the film for the stage. Instead, they’ve taken an essence of the original and crafted it, rather wonderfully, into a kind of mirror image.
In the film, the plot twists and turns so that we’re never quite sure what is real and what is straight from the characters’ imaginations. Simple8’s version also does this. The story is set in the town of Holstenwall, in Germany. Franzis, played by Joseph Kloska, is a lowly town clerk, who is bullied by his boss and is in love with a young woman called Jane (Sophie Roberts). She, in turn, is betrothed to Otto, the “button king of Germany”. The three of them visit a new attraction at a fair that has just arrived – the mysterious Dr Caligari, who keeps a sleeping man locked up in a cupboard. The somnambulist is able to answer any question about the future and does so, declaring that Otto will die the following morning, which happens. But who is the killer? And who is the real dreamer? We never completely find out.
Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton have adapted the original with admirable confidence, bringing out a lightness and humour in the production, while still ensuring the story retains its original sense of confusion and unease. There’s upbeat music and humorous one-liners alongside an inventive use of lighting to create ominous shadows.
Simple8 pride themselves on working miracles with a tiny budget and their abilities in this respect are clear here. Fairgrounds, town clerks, bedrooms, hovels – all are created with not much else but a white sheet, a table and an empty wooden coffin.
It’s within these pared-down constraints that the ensemble really flourish. The whole cast are very strong, although Christopher Doyle, who portrays Cesare the somnambulist with strange, jerky movements, is particularly good. The music is also played on stage by the eight-strong cast, playing a total of 15 characters, who move swiftly and seamlessly through the scenes within this slickly directed production.