Ridiculusmus: It’s no joke being funny
Jon Haynes is only semi-serious when he describes his work as “just an excuse for us to fart about”. With David Woods, Haynes makes up the performance duo Ridiculusmus, whose work tends to explore weighty themes in comic and ramshackle ways. “Seriously funny” is the way the company describes it. “We have all these serious discussions, but at the end of the day it is just us putting on silly voices.”
Woods and Haynes met at the Poor School in London in the 1980s where, together with fellow student Angus Barr, started performing comic songs on the ukulele. One day during their second year, the Canal Cafe rang up the principal to ask if there were any students who could fill an empty slot. “David was standing very nearby and said: ‘Yes, we’ll do a show. We’ll do Three Men in a Boat.’ ” So they researched and wrote an adaptation in a week. The reviews weren’t entirely favourable. Ian Shuttleworth, writing for City Limits, said: “Jon Darke [Haynes’ stage name at the time] as narrator J hints at what Ken Campbell defines as ‘the legendary minus quality’ – when he leaves the stage, the room seems more full.”
Still, they persevered and after a few more literary adaptations started writing their own material until, in 1999, they took two shows to Edinburgh: The Exhibitionists and Yes Yes Yes. They won a handful of awards, and cemented their reputation.
Their devising method is both intensely laborious and very simple: “We meet in a room, we have a recording device and we start. Often without any idea of what we’re going to do.” With no focus or clear endpoint, these improvisation sessions used to last hours, even days, with the rule enforced that they weren’t allowed to break out of character. “You can leave the space,” Haynes explains, “but you can’t stop and talk about it. You can fall asleep during it, but it has to carry on.”
Whatever comes out of these sessions is meticulously transcribed, with every hesitation and tiny repetition included in the transcript. The transcripts are mined for show-worthy material, they try bits out and draft what works into a script, re-performing until they have a show.
5 things you need to know about Ridiculusmus
1. In 2015 the company was cut from the arts council’s national portfolio, putting the future of the company in jeopardy.
2. Joint artistic director David Woods lives in Australia where he worked with Back to Back on the critically acclaimed Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.
3. The company’s relationship with Battersea Arts Centre began when Ridiculusmus claimed that Paul Blackman, BAC’s then artistic director, had programmed their show. He hadn’t, but when he heard the rumour he put it on anyway.
4. The cardboard set for their latest show, Give Me Your Love, was thrown away by the cleaners.
5. The company’s name is a quote from the Roman poet Horace: “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus”, which means: “The mountains will crack open and out will pop a little mouse.”
Perhaps surprisingly, when Haynes and Woods aren’t preparing or performing a show, they don’t see each other. “It’s not a Morecambe and Wise thing,” insists Haynes, “it’s not like we hate each other. He lives in Australia. It’s a work relationship.” Woods has been involved in productions away from Ridiculusmus – notably performing in Back to Back’s acclaimed show Ganesh Versus the Third Reich – while Haynes had a one-man autobiographical piece called The Poof Downstairs in 2010.
There may have to be more solo projects in the near future, since Ridiculusmus was cut from Arts Council England’s national portfolio. “It was quite a shock,” says Haynes. The arts council suggested that the company would be better suited to a per-project funding model, “but how on earth can this possibly be the better model when it’s very hard to carry on? I’m beginning to wonder how we’re going to carry on.”
It’s clear that this has had a huge impact on the company, and Haynes suggests that “there does seem to be a bias towards funding buildings rather than artist-led companies”. The next few weeks will decide Ridiculusmus’ future, as they meet with people to work out how they can continue.
For now, they have their latest show to worry about. Give Me Your Love looks at MDMA-assisted therapy for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and is the second in a trilogy of pieces exploring innovative approaches to mental health treatment. After 23 years of mostly two-handers (“it’s quite expensive to pay more than two people”), Haynes decided he wanted to do a show about a family. They improvised scenarios with a group of actors, and mental health cropped up again and again. What emerged in 2014 was the structurally bamboozling show The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland.
Haynes and Woods have both been personally affected by mental health issues. Just after starting university, Haynes had a nervous breakdown and spent six months in a psychiatric ward. This experience has informed the work Ridiculusmus has made. “We used to have group [therapy] every morning at 9 o’clock. This man would always say exactly the same thing every day.” Haynes slips into character with a growl: “John Fowles stole my wife from me.” Years later, riffling through a copy of John Fowles’ memoirs in Waterstones, Haynes discovered that it was true.
While mental health is a recent focus, one thing that has always been present in Ridiculusmus’ work is a sense of humour. Woods even wrote a PhD thesis called How to Be Funny on theories of comedy. Watching them on stage, it’s easy to see elements of a classic comedy duo – Haynes the straight man, Woods the clown. But their work isn’t gag-driven, instead it’s what Woods calls “soulful comedy”. This often presents a programming problem: should they be in the comedy or theatre section? “Whenever we’re programmed as comedy it doesn’t work. We’ve been in the Melbourne comedy festival, and people start heckling us: ‘Why don’t you do a thing about backpackers?’ ”
For now, the future of Ridiculusmus looks precarious. They already have ideas in place for the third in the mental health trilogy, but what happens after that? There is simply no other company who could put on “an immersive durational headphone verbatim allegory of stage-four genocide” while dressed as mice. This time, maybe for the first time in Ridiculusmus’ ridiculous history, the situation isn’t funny anymore. In fact, it looks pretty serious.
Artistic directors: Jon Haynes, David Woods
Producer: Cheryl Pierce
Number of employees: Always two, currently four
Funding: Previously received £100,000 as arts council NPO
Number of performances: 20
Give Me Your Love runs at the Battersea Arts Centre until January 30, then tours to the Lyric Theatre, Bridport on February 3 and the Gulbenkian, Canterbury on February 5