Ridiculusmus is returning, as experimental as ever.
David Woods and Jon Haynes are celebrating their company's thirtieth birthday by taking two shows on tour.
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Theatre companies do not come much more international than acclaimed experimental duo Ridiculusmus.
Its two founders and co-artistic directors, David Woods (taller, talkier, balder) and Jon Haynes (shorter, quieter, more considered), live in Australia and Thailand respectively, make work in the UK, and tour it to everywhere from Edinburgh to Adelaide.
“It’s not as grand as it sounds,” laughs Haynes. “David has lived in Australia since 2004, and I divide my time between Bangkok and London. We work online a lot, we do quite intense tours of the UK, generally in the Autumn, and we cram in as much creative work as we can. That’s how we’ve always been, really. I remember we started devising a show on a ferry once.”
The Covid-19 pandemic put paid to Ridiculusmus’ plans over the last two years, as well as to any in-person collaboration, but Woods and Haynes are currently preparing to return to the UK with two shows – one already in the company’s repertoire, one completely new, and both, in classic Ridiculusmus fashion, presenting serious subjects in comedic fashion.
The former is Beautiful People, which originally toured the UK in 2019 under the now slightly uncomfortable title Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!, and which sees the duo dress up as an incredibly old couple and ponderously potter around on stage for an hour in an amusing exploration of extremely old age. Critic Miriam Gillinson labelled it an exercise in “endurance clowning.”
“We were going to rename it anyway, even before the pandemic, because we were booked to take it to China and the Chinese promoters weren’t keen on it,” explains Haynes. “We were worried people wouldn’t be interested in it post-pandemic, and those fears were borne out a bit. Some people said that it was too depressing for their theatre now.”
“We’ve always had trouble with titles, though,” adds Woods. “People didn’t want to book The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland because the title was too much of a mouthful. We had to remind them of various titles in the history of independent theatre that were much lengthier and more provocative than that.”
The second show Ridiculusmus is bringing to Britain this summer is So…, a two-hander in which Woods and Haynes play a pair of long-lost brothers, meeting up after their mother’s funeral and relentlessly bickering with each other. It all stemmed, explains Woods, from an old audio recording of some improvisation he and Haynes did years ago.
“We spend a lot of time improvising characters in our devising sessions, and we record everything we do,” says Haynes. “We have files and files and transcripts and transcripts of stuff. We stumbled across a conversation we had improvised between two miserable northern guys that we never did anything with, listened to it back, and thought: ‘Oh, this is really, really good stuff.’”
“It eventually became this show featuring two brothers talking about all kinds of contemporary issues, from grief to Big Pharma, to Covid, and, to Brexit,” adds Woods. “I think I’ve actually come up with something quite clever in the design. It will be us two, on stage, standing behind screens with only our faces poking through these holes lit by LED strips, talking. And that’s about it.”
“We are hardcore experimentalists, and we always will be…”
Woods and Haynes met as at London’s Poor School in 1990. “It wasn’t love at first sight or anything, although I do remember your impression of a crane quite vividly,” says Haynes. “I remember your rhinoceros, too,” replies Woods. “I remember you getting down on all fours and charging into a plasterboard wall.”
They started putting on shows together as Ridiculusmus in 1992, the name lifted from a quote from the Roman poet Horace. It was the two award-winning shows they took to the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe – The Exhibitionists and Yes, Yes, Yes – that cemented their reputation as premier purveyors of avant-garde, serio-comic theatre, alongside Forced Entertainment and Filter.
They followed that with show after acclaimed show, from 2000’s Say Nothing (about Northern Ireland) to 2011’s Total Football (about tribalism and national identity), to 2015’s Give Me Your Love (about MDMA-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress), and the first of a series of shows about innovative approaches to mental health). Since 1992, they have made nearly thirty, and performed them at the Barbican, the National Theatre, the Royal Court, Battersea Arts centre and elsewhere.
In 2015, Ridiculusmus was dealt a serious blow. It lost its National Portfolio Organisation status, and the regular funding it relied upon. In a stroke, the company was sent back – organisationally, if not artistically – to its early days: just the two of them, with very little support and very little money. “It’s like its 1993 again,” says Woods. “It’s like we’ve just graduated.”
“We do everything ourselves now, because we have to,” he continues. “We don’t have the money for a team, we don’t have the money for a stage manager, we don’t have the money for an expensive set. Everything has to be done by one of us and it has to be done cheaply.” Haynes echoes him. “Mmm,” he nods. “We have to be a lot more careful about costs now.”
Despite that, though, and despite the difficulties Covid-19 caused for such an international company, Woods and Haynes are determined to keep making and touring work. Ridiculusmus is celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year – an extraordinary achievement in anyone’s books, and one which makes them one of the most experienced ensembles around.
“We’ve made vows with each other that we are going to keep doing this until we are dead, whether people want us to or not” says Woods. “I don’t know where our resilience comes from. I think it is probably two things. Firstly, the fact that we can somehow still make work together even when we are incredibly angry at each other. And secondly, our genuine faith in the form, our genuine belief that this is the best art there is. We are hardcore experimentalists, and we always will be.”
What do you want to do?
Carry on carrying on…
What support do you need to get there?
Funding, audiences, and love.
How can people find out more about you?
They can come see Beautiful People when it tours later in the year and in 2023, and they can come see So… at Brighton Fringe later this month. They can visit our website and follow us on Twitter, too.
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