“It’s like kind of like a pantomime, but less shit”, so goes Jonnie Bayfield’s pithy summary of Idiots, a new production by Caligula’s Alibi. It seems as good a synopsis as any for this odd, Russian-existentialist inspired, musical comedy.
During his opening monologue, Bayfield also warns that the tone will shift once or twice before a satisfying “Hollywood ending”. This too is true, but does little to prepare the audience for the break-neck shifts in direction, as the performance moves from song to soliloquy, stand-up comedy to high tragedy, with more than one expressionist dance interlude punctuating the action. Having enjoyed recent success at The Vaults festival, Idiots transfers to Soho Theatre, as part of their ‘Coming Up’ season: it has to be seen to be believed.
The story takes place in purgatory, where Dostoyevsky (played by Bayfield) languishes in a shabby book-littered flat, wiling away a fraudulent benefit claim. This stasis is interrupted by the unwelcome intrusion of a mysterious bureaucrat (Adam Colborne) who has been appointed to audit his soul. As this inquiry proceeds, we’re also treated to a reenactment of Dostoevsky’s Idiots, a novel depicting the tragic love-triangle between Prince Myshkin (Jonnie Bayfield), Parfyon Rogozhin (Stewart Agnew) Nastasya Fillipovna (Jessica Lee-Hopkins). The two’s plotlessness proceeds in tandem, each portraying their own brand of spiritual turmoil and the audience consulted for guidance.
More than anything, Idiots feels like a joyride, haphazardly leaping between fictional realms and time periods while regularly bulldozing through the ‘Third Wall’. Yet, beneath the absurdist humour, there are moments that manage to be strikingly (and improbably) moving. A monologue beginning “I got full marks in my SATS results” usually doesn’t promise to be terribly emotive. As the speech progresses, however, we’re offered a powerful evocation of a life squandered in bad faith, despite good intentions. One of the show’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to disarm the audience, before taking them into rather uncomfortable territory.
Seemingly against all odds, the play holds together remarkably well. This is in no small part thanks to the explosive dynamics of the ensemble, who relish the moments of melodrama while also remaining sensitive to the philosophical mission underlying Dostoevsky’s work. In one powerful moment between Parfyon and Natasya, the former demands if her other lover “does this” or “this” or “this”, rapidly aping all possible gestures of affection. The scene is at once silly and deeply unnerving, evoking a frustrated and futile attempt to formalise love, to pin it down and render it comprehensible.
As far as experimental, genre mashups go, Idiots proves an exhilarating journey and is well worth checking out. 4/5
Review written by Sean Gilbert.
Idiots is currently showing at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 2nd April. For more information on the production, visit here…