Part of an ambitious double-bill of productions which includes a stage version of Moby-Dick, Simple8’s reworking of the hugely influential German expressionist film of 1920 is incredibly atmospheric and full of visual invention.
Sebastian Armesto and Dudley Hinton have created a dramatically compelling and stylistically stripped back version of Robert Wiene’s cult film, peeling away the asylum-framing device to concentrate on the twitching heart of the narrative. A travelling circus arrives in the small German town of Holstenwall, its star attraction the somnambulist Cesare who is ministered to by the sinister Dr Caligari and, it is claimed, has the power to see the future. A young clerk, Franzis Gruber, gets caught up in their nightmarish half-awake world, accused of murder and slowly driven mad.
The production design makes intelligent nods to the expressionist style with some bed-sheet shadow-play, but otherwise they don’t attempt to replicate the film’s distinctive visuals. In their place are scenes of considerable wit and creativity, the cast multi-tasking and making a virtue of the budgetary constraints, playing musical instruments and coming together to form the Holstenwall clock or the various fairground attractions. The ensemble is tightly directed with Christopher Doyle suitably uncanny and marionette-like as Cesare, and Oliver Birch looming and ominous as the enigmatic Caligari. And while the production loses momentum a little before the end, it is never less than engaging.