“Idiots at Soho Theatre is…” That’s a line from the show. In fact it’s a running gag – we are given some reviews about Dostoevsky’s book “The Idiot” and Dostoevsky (Jonnie Bayfield) tacks on that line – apparently an open invitation for a reviewer to complete it. Happy to oblige.
“Idiots” is about Dostoevsky. Bayfield (and co-writer Will Cowell) sees Dostoevsky as an unhinged, scatter-logical, female-breast-fondling, cheating, deliberately over-writing, epileptic, gambling-addicted genius who is terribly misunderstood. Not least by himself. I use the word “scatter-logical” advisedly with its modern connotation defined in the Urban Dictionary as “The art of talking shit”. Because, frankly, that is principally what this show appears to be.
Dostoevsky, who 130 years after his death is still collecting welfare benefits, is visited by The Bureaucrat – yes, the show is a kind of “A Government Inspector Named Kafka Calls” scenario. We are informed at the start that the show is in three parts: The Amusing Opening; The Serious Bit in the Middle; and the Crowd-Pleasing Hollywood End.
So the first part is a Dostoevsky joke-in with funny dances for good measure. It’s a kind of Stand-up for Intellectuals with members of the audience (including Mr Tolstoy, Mr Dickens and Mr Blobby) targeted with well-rehearsed ad-lib riffs and live musical accompaniment (Jonathan Hopwood) in which Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting” is the thematic feature. It was, of course, one of Dostoevsky’s favourites. There’s a funnily topical and obligatory BBC reference: Dostoevsky never gets his stuff adapted for TV whilst Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is just “Eastenders” with beards. Jokes-wise it’s all downhill from that acme of hilarity.
There’s no doubt that Bayfield has an engaging comic persona but he can’t wait to escape that particular inhibiting strait-jacket so that he can bask sycophantically in his Dostoevskian art – the Art of Talking Shit.
Part Two is the Long Involved Serious Part which is very definitely NOT an adaptation but which has funny dances for good measure. (The “Not An Adaptation” motif is seared indelibly onto our brains by a dazzling crowd-blinder sign that flashes on at appropriate moments throughout the show). Dostoevsky morphs into Myshkin, the central character of “The Idiot”, but really the two are one and the same. The Bureaucrat makes his entrance through a cunningly un-disguised floor-level cabinet door with Dostoevsky hurriedly donning a Leo Sayer wig. Leo Sayer? He was big pop star back when Dostoevsky was in his prime.
Funny, eh? If you’re over 35, perhaps. That was the last of the humour. The serious bit lasted seemingly as long as “War and Peace” in a double-Dostoevsky-novel-sandwich and only made sense if you understood that beyond his novels Dostoevsky took the Art of Talking Shit to a level that even Donald Trump would be pushed to emulate.
And so to the third part. We knew it was the third part because Bayfield told us so: otherwise we might not have noticed. This was the promised, crowd-pleasing, Hollywood denouement with funny dances for good measure and some gratuitous naked-female-breast fondling for extra good measure. As a Hollywood ending it didn’t really live up to its billing and could have done with an exciting, perilous car-chase – for good measure – just like what was planned at the end of “Great Expectations” apparently, according to Dostoevsky/Bayfield (the two are one and the same). Instead we got Elton John’s “Rocket Man”: my how that Dostoevsky chap loved Elton. I happen to know, though, that when Bernie Taupin wrote the immortal lyric “Burning out his fuse up here alone” he had Dostoevsky in mind. (By this point we knew it was gonna be a long, long time).
There’s a certain charm about the show. You don’t have to be a Dostoevsky aficionado, or have at least to have read his books (nobody has, apparently), to be able to not understand a word that is going on – any old fool can do that. But there is a strange, unplaceable tugging at the soul for this tortured genius who could talk shit for Russia. Adam Colborne as The Bureaucrat is a delight and his channelling of Dan Brown, along with his fake-moustache manipulation, gives us much needed respite from Dostoevsky/Myshkin/Bayfield’s discombobulating rants (for the three are one and the same). Jessicca-Lee Hopkins as Nastasya Fillipovna is just a bit too shouty-crackers to take, even on a damp Wednesday night in Soho, though she was generally good fondle-fodder. And Stewart Agnew as a sallow-eyed, shaven-headed emotionally-challenged cretin seemed to have wandered in from the set of “The Walking Dead”. The pairs’ funny dance skills were universally admired, though. And although the “party” sequence is the sort that gives you a hangover while you’re actually there partying, the lighting for it – and throughout the show – is superb. No Lighting Designer is credited (seriously, guys?) but Technical Manager Cai Taylor and Technical Assistant Sam Miller are presumably responsible. The piece is directed by Bayfield and Cowell and devised by the company, Caligula’s Alibi.
The show, then, treads that wavy line between serious and funny and can never really make up it’s mind which direction it needs to take. If the aim is to rigorously examine an unstable, unhinged, self-absorbed, existential-crisis-riven, hysterical, raving, delirious inhabitant of his own personal dystopia then I don’t think it works. But as an exercise in how to talk shit as an art form one has to say it succeeds on every level.
Review by Peter Yates
Fyodor Dostoyevsky is dead. He’s also on benefits. Stagnating in a bedsit, the great novelist’s only neighbours are Tolstoy, Dapper Laughs and Monty Don from Gardeners’ World. Interrupting his 130-year writer’s block, a heartless Bureaucrat forces Fyodor to justify more than his disability claim.
Alongside coping with his epilepsy the writer is forced to confront the turbulent and strange world of his most autobiographical work – a world of purity, sickness and abuse.
Deconstructing Dostoyevsky’s morality tale and the nature of modern theatre, Caligula takes you through a journey of judgment, bureaucracy and what it means to be a speck of dust on the sleeve of the cosmos.
In case you were wondering…
THIS IS NOT AN ADAPTATION.
Co-Artistic Director of Caligula’s Alibi, Jonnie Bayfield, was a member of SYC Writers’ Lab 2013-14.
Running Time: 60 mins
Age Recommendation: 15+