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Production image of Idiots at the Soho Theatre

Interview with Caligula’s Alibi

29 March 2016 Lydia Cooper

Jonnie Bayfield and Will Cowell, co-founders and Artistic Directors of theatre company Caligula’s Alibi, chat to London Calling about Dostoyevsky in a bedsit, egomaniacs, and Soho Rising.

London Calling: Your show Idiots is at the Soho Theatre this spring. It’s been described as ‘[if] Bertolt Brecht met Charlie Brooker on LSD after a hard night's drinking in a library’...

Jonnie Bayfield: The show is a sort of adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot - I say sort of, because we have interpreted the world of The ​Idiot in our own, warped way; whilst also creating a world in which Dostoyevsky himself is trapped in a bedsit in a ​bizarre purgatory- he shares ​a bathroom with Dapper Laughs, so you can see the adaptation is not quite conventional.

Will Cowell​: The show is very funny, quite surreal and often quite dark and violent. We use his words and his world to examine our own society’s views ​on power,​ ​work and art.

 
LC: What drew you to deconstructing Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in particular? 

Jonnie: The book is a monster and, controversially, despite its classic status, is ​a winding and confusing yet deeply profound ​piece of literature. The Idiot is about how goodness and innocence cannot exist in the world without being corrupted.  As with all great art, its themes transcend time.
 

LC: Lots of political themes resonate in this work. Have you updated the show that was at the Fringe in light of the government’s recent disability cuts?

Will: Well the piece​ isn't particularly a topical, 'now'​ piece, but in it Dostoyevsky is claiming benefits for his epilepsy – which he may or may not be exploiting for financial gain (something the real man did a lot in his life). That said, myself and Jonnie are both frustrated, angry and disgusted with the government​'s stance on austerity measures as a whole - which inevitably seeps into the work, so issues such as this and a few others are touched on indirectly.

Jonnie: Predominantly we are dealing with the existential idea of how to judge a life as good or bad. Is goodness subjective or objective? Could ​a​ bureaucratic machine, in possession of the facts, truly judge someone’s life?

Will: On the other side of that, in the world of the Idiot, we look at power in love, compassion ​and the often-violent cruelty that comes from it. We shine a particular light on the cruelty and objectification of women, which is prevalent ​throughout the original novel.


LC: The piece is just an hour. How did you choreograph it, was it just a series of rehearsals with the other performers?

Will: We work in a very fluid way – Jonnie writes and I direct, though we both do each other’s jobs and the cast all have a say in the dialogue and the process. To create the free form and constantly recycling content of the show, I rehearse the cast laying down as many possible tracks in relation to the script - they are encouraged to dick about, play, amp up the theatrical and ridiculous​ in order to find all the extremes and potential improv spots in their scenes - this, combined with the natural ownership that is developed throughout the collaborative creation, forms the authentic and rigorously alive performances. 

Jonnie: A lot of the stuff we do also happens on the stage in front of an audience. The show we started we last year was completely different to the show we now have. We do a lot of improvisation, which is fun for both us and the audience, but all within a tight framework of structure​ and anchor points.​

 

 

LC: The show is part of Soho Rising and Jonnie was a member of the Soho Writer’s Lab 2013-15. What other platforms of support are there for new young writers at the moment? Do you have any advice for budding writers?

Jonnie: It’s an odd one, writing, because I think a lot of it has to come naturally. The writers groups are great for honing skills and, importantly, meeting other young writers. More importantly than that though, it teaches you what you like and what you don’t like. Which for any writer is really important. I would say just do the work - write, write, write, write.

Will:  And then edit, edit, edit, edit.

Jonnie: (laughs) That’s a classic director thing.

 
LC: Have you seen any of the other Soho Rising works in the festival line-up?

Will: The show is quite taxing for the cast, it’s very bold and physical, so at Edinburgh everyone was too exhausted to move most of the time, so we missed a few of the shows but are looking forward to seeing them alongside us.

Jonnie: I also court one of the members of Antler, who we know, so we’ve all ​seen their show.

 

LC: You formed your company in 2012. Where does the name Caligula’s Alibi originate from?

Will: We wanted something strange and memorable, and Caligula is the personification of that. We liked the idea that for all of his crimes and atrocities, he has to have an alibi.

Jonnie: And our shows are that alibi - a way of distracting his accusers.

​Will: (laughs) It’s also a nice challenge for our producer to have to use and spell the name all the time.​

Jonnie: I​t’s also worth saying that, despite his incestuous, horse-electing mania, the man was a visionary ​with an ego, ​who saw no boundaries. A bit of that is worth having if you are an artist.


LC: What are your projects for the rest of this year? Do you have any plans to go to the Fringe?

Will: Well, we’re having a break from the Fringe this year, but have just started work on Jonnie’s debut solo show EgoSystem which he received the Sky Academy Arts Scholarship for.

Jonnie: We have also just been offered support from the Barbican; so will be developing the show for next Edinburgh.

Will: We were also thinking of doing a spin-off show with Dostoyevsky (who Jonnie plays in Idiots) singing 90s hits as though he was a lounge singer.

Jonnie: It’s early days.

​Will: Also Idiots is showing regionally for a couple of dates in April so check out - plugplugplug.com.

Jonnie: It’s caligulasalibi.com.

 

Jonnie and Will’s show Idiots is at the Soho Theatre 29 March - 2 April 2016.

 

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