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Interview: Don't Sleep There Are Snakes - Simple8 head deep into the Amazonian rainforest

Simple8 make ensemble-based theatre that explores huge ideas on a tiny budget. Their first major production turned Les Enfants Du Paradis, acclaimed as the greatest French film ever made, into an alternative pantomime with a sprawling cast. Since then, they've adapted everything from horror classics and Hogarth engravings, and even conjured up the rigging of the huge whaling ship in Moby Dick on a shoestring.

Their newest production, Don't Sleep There Are Snakes at Park Theatre, is a story of a missionary questioning his faith deep in the Amazon jungle. Run Riot sat down with Simple8 to talk rainforests, the Piraha tribe, and how to create whole worlds out of nothing.

Alice: Your new piece, Don't Sleep There Are Snakes, is inspired by Daniel Everett's real life experiences in the Amazonian rainforest. How did you first come across his book? And what made you want to adapt it for the stage?

I heard it being talked about on the radio years ago, and I thought it sounded fascinating. And being a theatre person, I immediately thought, will it work on stage? But Seb and I initially dismissed it - well, Seb did.

Seb: I did.

Dudley: We just couldn't really picture it. But it kept gnawing away at us - the fact that it's a tremendous story about a man in the Amazon, but also one that deals with big themes - language, beliefs, and what it means to be human.

Seb: We did some initial development work on it and it clicked. The style of story telling we ended up with, partly based on the Piraha's (the tribe in the story) approach to stories, was simple and direct. Which we liked.

Alice: Simon McBurney's The Encounter was live-streamed earlier in the month, and looked at some similar themes of an outsider discovering an Amazonian tribe's language. Have you seen it? If so, how close are its concerns to your own work?

We've both seen it - and both loved it, actually. It's a perfect counter-piece to Snakes, as it's very different - it deals with a very contrasting tribe and a very different protagonist - but it throws up similar questions, and takes an audience to those blurred, unknown edges of humanity which I find pretty extraordinary. I hope our play will do that.

Seb: I agree with Dudley. Seeing Complicite's A Minute Too Late when I was sixteen was one of my prime inspirations for going to drama school and wanting to be involved in theatre. I'm a fanboy so I'm a very biased audience to anything they do. Don't Sleep There Are Snakes and The Encounter do share a setting and both try to look at humanity by travelling to its fringes. But we don't have headphones.

Alice: It's a challenge presenting tribes like the Piraha in way that doesn't exoticise or patronise them - especially in a colonial narrative that involves a white missionary entering their community. What approach have you taken to presenting their society?

I think it's important to stress we're in no way trying to replicate an Amazonian tribe. That would be ridiculous and unachievable, and quite possibly, patronising. What we've aimed to do is give a representation of their outlook on the world - an outlook that hopefully throws our own into question.

Dudley: This time I agree with my colleague. We've tried to put their philosophy and world view on stage rather than the actual people. And they've been a great joy to research - they're described as the "happiest people in the world". They laugh at everything and live almost entirely in the present.

Alice: What message do you hope people will take away from Don't Sleep There Are Snakes?

First and foremost I hope people have an enjoyable evening. We always try to make our work fun and vibrant and that's what we're aiming for with Snakes. Apart from that, I hope people will find the Piraha tribe and Dan's story as thrilling and curious as we do, and ruminate on both of those things on the way home.

Alice: I heard great things about your production of Moby Dick, but can't imagine staging such a huge work on a small stage and a small budget. What techniques did you use to bring its world to life?

Seb: Moby-Dick is a very long and verbose novel, but actually it mostly happens on a mid-sized whaler. And there aren't that many named characters (less than in most of Shakespeare's histories). And sometimes a small stage can make a little look like a lot. And sometimes a small budget can force you to find very simple and inventive solutions. Really Moby-Dick was far more contained than some other things (I think Les Enfants du Paradis, which we staged in 2006, had 76 named characters and I remember vividly seeing Shared Experience's War and Peace and being stunned that they could so boldly capture that behemoth).  

Dudley: Essentially, we took the same approach we always do; an approach we're using for Snakes. All our work is based on creating worlds out of nothing; of using the actors and whatever is around them to construct a panoply of life. In this show's case, our six actors create the Amazon, a plane, a boat and municipal offices out of not very much. Well, two chairs, a sheet and a rope to be exact. Plus a bit of mime, live music, and puppetry.

Alice: You've adapted a series of challenging subjects, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a series of Hogarth engravings as well as Moby Dick. What would you like to take on next? And is there anything you'd find impossible to adapt for the stage?

I don't think there's anything that's impossible to adapt for stage but there are things that are unsuitable. We only dramatise something if we can trace a really good reason as to why it should be on stage or why it could benefit from being on stage.  

Dudley: We have something planned for 2017, but I can't say what it is at the moment. I think we'd also love to bring Moby Dick back as it'd be great for more people to be able to see it, and I think we can make it better. We also have an idea based on a French film but that's in the very early stages of thinking about.

Alice: How has your style as a company evolved over the past ten years? What do you gain from creating work together?

For me, the two great things about the people I work with in simple8 are - first, trust, which essentially means they can tell me what I'm doing is rubbish and I won't mind, and vice versa. And second, I think we always want to evolve and do new things - so yes, I guess our work has evolved over the years, and that's been about the people but also about each project we've done. In many ways, Snakes is the project that's most suited to our stripped back approach. Or maybe our style has evolved to this point so it feels that way. Either way, it's exciting.

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes
22 March - 23 April
Park Theatre
Clifton Terrace,
Finsbury Park,
London N4 3JP


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