REVIEWS The Cabinet of Doktor Caligari Nottingham Playhouse
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Doktor Caligari, the evil hypnotist, has a contraption that registers the Seven Steps of Sleep: drowse, slumber, trance, torpor, stupor, coma, rigor and death. The first six of these sound like a summary of the stages you go through when faced with anything starring Tommy Steele, nine-tenths of "performance art" and the thought of having to watch something at the ICA (only kidding). Alertness is never a problem, though, at the Nottingham Playhouse, where the continually striking programme keeps you sitting bolt upright. Inspired by Robert Wiene's celebrated Expressionist film of 1919, Martin Duncan's new staging of The Cabinet of Doktor Caligari is packed with the customary house flair but patchier in quality than most of the productions here and plagued with a faint hint of pointlessness.

Barry Simner's script tells, by and large, the same story as the screenplay. The disturbing predictions of Cesare (a moving John Ramm), a fairground fortune-teller, coincide with a spate of savage murders in the Bavarian village to whose fair he and his wicked controller, Caligari (a chilling Matthew Kelly) have travelled. When a friend is killed and a girlfriend abducted, the medical student hero Max pursues the hypnotist and finds him in control of an asylum.

At this point, reversing the author's original intentions, the movie insisted on a de-politicising twist, showing that Caligari was "actually" a benign doctor and the protagonist his clinically disturbed patient. Ending with the nightmare vision of a still villainous Caligari slamming the now demented, protesting Max into his cabinet, this stage version makes amends. The allegorical and prophetic dimension of the story - where the manipulated somnambulist Cesare stands for the German people sent off to fulfil by proxy the twisted desires of a mesmeric madman - are communicated, however, more powerfully in the programme than on the stage.

Surmounted by a sky whose clouds resemble an invasion of flying saucers, Ken Lee's colourfully claustrophobic design does not, for the most part, attempt to compete with the warped, highly subjective feel of the movie - though the vertical perspective it offers on the bedroom of one of the victims gives the killing the creepy look of a knife act as performed by a psychotic with a dyslexic sense of direction.

The star of the show is the "chromasone", an extraordinary device invented by Walter Fabeck. A long, bony chrome keyboard that rotates and tilts on an axis, it translates gestures into sound, provided you have remembered to wear your "data gloves". From the penetrative hiss when a needle is plunged into Cesare's cheek, to a glassy, frisson-like skidding, all the noises seem to be massaged from thin air.

n To 21 Oct. Booking: 0115-941 9419. Lyric Hammersmith, London, from 26 Oct. Booking: 0181 741 2311