“Enlightenment by demonstration”
Trotting into the depths of the Barbican Pit, And The Horse You Rode In On is the latest piece by innovative company Told by an Idiot. Conceived by Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter and created by the company, the show has the subtitle ‘a sequence of serious follies’, mixing together as it does five different narratives, weaving them together in an unlikely mishmash. These influences range from Hitchcock’s film Sabotage to a Dario Fo hostage story, from Are You Being Served to Bugs Bunny, taking in the Baader-Meinhof Gang and some of Günter Grass’ writing, this latter two pointing most directly (to my eyes at least) to what is being examined here, namely what drives people to commit extreme acts for their beliefs and the relative powerlessness we have to stop them.
Told by an Idiot have been working long enough to allay any suspicions about whether their approach works and it really does, but unlikely as it may seem, the strongest part of the work is the humour: this is deeply, belly-achingly, funny stuff, there was one point where I was near-helpless with laughter. I am loathe to give things away here and words could not do them justice anyway, but Are You Being Served played in German was hysterical, followed by a sequence of scenes that were acted by three actors but voiced-over by two off-stage and riotously funny with it. The story of the Italian circus troupe making a perilous journey across the Alps and then being taken hostage, singing cheerily all-the-while was another triumph with a conclusion which, though ridiculous, made perfect sense.
The company of five plus director Paul Hunter throw themselves with such unflagging enthusiasm into the show, switching between endless roles with consummate ease but Annie Fitzmaurice deserves plaudits for dressing up as a dog and getting soaking wet and then continuing on with her other roles with barely a moment’s breath. Jane Guernier’s leader of the singing troupe was another highlight but between them and also Bettrys Jones, Nick Haverson and Martin Hyder, there really was not a moment of weakness in the entire production, performance-wise.
Ultimately, if one is honest, there’s an element of debate about what it all amounts to as there is little analysis or obvious point where the stories intersect beyond the initial starting point of extremism. But there’s such energy on display and it is just so intensely funny that this never struck my mind whilst I was watching the show. And on reading the programme with their explanation of why the company has decided to tackle political theatre for the first time, it becomes apparent that their rationale for the piece is about theatrical invention and the infusion of comedy into a dark subject – they are ‘not setting out to…deal with a particular issue’ and you know what, it really doesn’t matter because they achieve what they have set out to do with great flair, pulling together such disparate material into a flamboyantly cohesive whole and making the audience howl with laughter.