Underbelly Cowgate – Big Belly
From the outset Chewboy’s Caligari bewitches and captivates. The cast waken from an uncomfortable, distorted slumber and we’re taken back to Weimar Germany. With vivacious music and stark imagery, the ‘true story’ of the people of the town unfolds. Yet the setting is clearly theatrical and fantastic – there is no sense of truth or reality here at all. It’s sleeping and also needs to be awakened.
The production is based on the 1920s silent film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari about a demented hypnotist who keeps a somnambulist, Cesare, as a freak performer, forcing him in his unconscious state to commit murders around the town. It questions abuse of power, social responsibility, and the manipulation of the masses repeatedly across time by those in power.
The film is an Expressionist work, which externalises an inner reality through its visual design and here, a wonderfully simple, dark and ominous set replicates this. Perspectives are warped, skewed and darkened, setting the scene for a fascinating exploration of a society out of joint. Striking lighting, costume and makeup underscore the theatricality and artifice of the events. It’s the actors (representing the people of the town) and the instruments they play and control that give substance to the space and the story.
Caligari is a beautifully crafted piece of storytelling. It intermingles fact and fiction as it discusses social responsibility for sleepwalking into disaster – a theme so very current in these times of crisis – and gaslighting by those in power. A sense of instability is cleverly created as we see disagreement amongst the townspeople from the start, not only regarding the content of the story to be told, but even the format the play might take. The message is clear: such a lack of unity fragments our ability to stand up to political manipulators and inevitably leads to repeated disasters. The play urges us to continue to try to wake up to this and write our own version of the truth.
This is a fantastic ensemble of highly talented, endearing musicians and actors. The Weimar cabaret-styled music shifts with ease from upbeat to chilling as narrative perspectives change. There are many lovely, humorous moments, transforming almost to grotesque as we are offered a police force voiced by kazoos, with physically distorted movement abstracting them from reality into caricature. Indeed, physical movement is used with great effect throughout to extend the idea being represented of a contorted balance of social powers.
This is a dreamlike study of society’s relationship with abusive leadership, and at times the shifts between story and commentary can seem a little confusing. The characterisation is fairly simplistic, but in that way helps to simplify a complex problem. It’s a difficult topic to get a grip on – why do we not see what is so clearly happening? How is it obscured? – which is perhaps why the manipulation discussed here is allowed to recur so frequently. The production really encapsulates this, constantly resetting to urge the need for recognition if we are ever to combat it, and engaging the audience through vibrant entertainment.
This is an enormously entertaining piece of work. It might leave you a little bemused, but you will be visually and mentally stimulated and leave the theatre wide awake and thinking it over.
Written by: Georgie Bailey
Directed by: Lucy Betts
Lighting Design by: Chloe Stally-Gibson
Produced by: ChewBoy Productions
Caligari plays at EdFringe 2022 until 28 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.