A nefarious Hungarian doctor, a sleepwalking beast and detestable figures of power: simple8’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari now opening at the Arcola makes good use of the most striking aspects from its 1920s source material. Said to have pushed German expressionism into the mainstream and at least in part responsible for the current glut of zombie related fiction out there today, The Cabinet was a milestone in silent cinema. The play adaptation could not be as startling as this original but with its decent performances, tight direction and deft use of space it is a thoroughly entertaining play.

The Cabinet follows the fortunes of a small town in Germany as they prepare for their yearly fair. As unusual characters arrive, including a mysterious Dr. Caligari (Oliver Birch) and his sleepwalker Cesare (Christopher Doyle) tensions build and two murders are committed. Joseph Kloska plays the part of a bungling notary accused of the crimes with strong expression and particularly shines as a downtrodden servant frantically defending his life while slipping towards insanity. The cast in general might not set the world alight but are of a good standard with Birch in particular mastering Caligari’s intensity and mystique.

The players turn out decent performances while also providing both the music for the play and an interactive set. The spirit of the fair is captured well by leader Hermann (Christopher Doyle) and the cast play a multitude of instruments to successfully manipulate the atmosphere. It’s the use of the space that I commend the production most for. The actors step in as components in a filing cabinet, fairground games and a large clock, focusing the attention of the audience and adding some levity to the production. Simon Allison, Sebastian Armesto and Sherry Coenen’s paired back, minimalist approach has the twofold benefit of saving money while harnessing the spirit of the original. As fair leader Doyle pokes fun at expensive productions (proudly declaring that his fair does not have the “fancy horse puppets” of larger ones) the audience gets a sense that this adaptation is a convincing dialogue with the small budget source material and makes a strong claim for a good story, confidently produced.

While it is not as striking as it could have been and the links to a tumultuous, war-torn Europe ultimately left unfulfilled The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is indeed a well-told tale and is certainly more compelling than much of the ghastly horror fiction the original has spawned.

-Patrick Brennan