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The Fahrenheit Twins are Told by an Idiot

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The Fahrenheit Twins are Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter, co-artistic directors of Told by an Idiot theatre company, which they founded in 1993 with John Wright.

Told by an Idiot’s past productions include The Comedy of Errors with Royal Shakespeare Company earlier this year, and Casanova in collaboration with Carol Ann Duffy in 2007.

“Theatre about as inventive, imaginative and fantastical as it gets.” Not surprisingly, Told by an Idiot uses this high praise from Time Out as a regular strap-line. However, co-founder Paul Hunter hesitates about applying the word “experimental” to The Fahrenheit Twins, Told by an Idiot’s co-production with the Drum Theatre, Plymouth.

When we spoke, The Fahrenheit Twins was nearing the end of a two-week-plus run at the Drum, prior to arriving at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on October 13th. Based on the title story of Michel Faber’s 2005 collection, The Fahrenheit Twins, described as “fascinating and captivating”, tells of the epic journey of two 10-year-old twins to bury their mother in the Arctic Circle. Paul has been delighted with audience response at Plymouth:

“The audiences have been wonderful. What is really good is that so many people have said they want to read more of Michel Faber because of the experience. He’s not a writer with a great popular appeal, so this is very pleasing. We’ve tried to be true to the spirit of the book, though obviously we’ve had to tweak it in different ways, reinvent it as a play. We’ve actually added very little, certainly not by way of dialogue: the only completely new part is a prologue which we needed to explain the background and that’s done with music, not language.”

The “we” in question are Paul, co-founder, co-artistic director and other twin Hayley Carmichael, and director Matthew Dunster. Hayley and Paul’s enthusiasm for the work of the Dutch/Australian/Scottish writer Michel Faber goes back to his first published novel Under the Skin which they discovered nearly a decade ago. Paul believes that Faber’s stylistic signature is almost too distinctive for widespread popularity. Rather depressingly, he thinks that most readers prefer the predictable, where Faber always produces the unexpected: “he takes you where you don’t expect to go” – a fair summary of Told by an Idiot, when you come to think of it.

A couple of years ago, when Paul and Hayley were performing at the Edinburgh Festival, they encountered The Fahrenheit Twins and immediately thought of it as a superb subject for a two-hander. By chance Michel Faber was speaking in Edinburgh at the same time, so naturally they approached him, only to be confronted (appropriately enough) with the unexpected: “Michel Faber is famously reclusive, so he was not interested in any contact. But we were able to turn to his excellent publishers, Canongate, and they listened to what we planned and gave us the go-ahead. It wasn’t a matter of producing a script in a formal way, we began with improvisation, then we came to realise that, when we needed dialogue, what worked best was what Michel Faber had already written. We’re very proud that this is, we think, the first adaptation of his work in any country and any medium.”

Told by an Idiot’s first production, On the Verge of Exploding, dates from 1993, but the origins of the group go back eight years before that. Hayley and Paul were studying Drama at what was then Middlesex Polytechnic. For the most part it was a conventional acting course and, though Paul emphasises that this was valuable and worthwhile, both of them were drawn to the visionary ideas of John Wright of Trestle Theatre who looked at the whole idea of “making theatre” and was in touch with the European tradition of the likes of Jacques Lecocq. (Interestingly enough, 20-odd years later one of the appeals of Michel Faber is his European sensibility.)

In the early 1990s Paul and Hayley had the chance to stage an adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marques100 Years of Solitude at the Edinburgh Festival and decided to ask John Wright to direct the production (which became On the Verge of Exploding). Initially they planned to put together a production, but, when they looked back, they’d put together a company.

Not that Told by an Idiot is a year-round permanent company – and this, Paul feels, is a major strength. Hayley comes to The Fahrenheit Twins from Samuel Beckett in Paris, Paul from Troilus and Cressida at London’s Globe Theatre. In fact, when I apologetically mention that the most memorable performance I ever saw from Hayley Carmichael was not with Told by an Idiot, but in Brecht’s Mr. Puntilla and his Man Matti with the Right Size at the Edinburgh Festival, Paul matches my enthusiasm for that remarkable production.

Another way Told by an Idiot keeps fresh is summarised by Paul’s mantra: “Don’t repeat”. At the moment there is a co-production of Comedy of Errors with the Royal Shakespeare Company, soon to reach Newcastle, and Paul is very clear that this was a wonderful experience, one he and Hayley might repeat in a few years, but, definitely, not in 2010!

When I venture the observation that for a company that relies on visual and physical theatre so much, their sources are often literary (Marques, Faber, collaborations with Philip Pullman and Carol Ann Duffy), Paul manages only tentative agreement. Possibly his favourite Told by an Idiot production, I’m a Fool to Want You, had the world of jazz as its starting point (the life of polymathic jazzman Boris Vian, with music by jazz pianist Zoe Rahman), another originated in a Yugoslav film – don’t repeat!

So The Fahrenheit Twins must be a first – and it is! After many years of working together, Hayley and Paul are appearing together in a two-hander for the first time, playing the twins, their parents and – here’s the challenge! – sundry denizens of the tundra from huskies to Arctic foxes!

- Hayley Carmichael and Paul Hunter were speaking to Ron Simpson

The Fahrenheit Twins is at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 13-17 October, and following that Unity Theatre, Liverpool, The Junction, Cambridge, and the Barbican.


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