The Prince leaves them spellbound

15th September 2000 at 01:00
THE IDIOT. West Yorkshire Playhouse performance and workshop.

As S3 and S4 pupils at Denny High School, Falkirk arrive in the hall to see a dramatised version of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, cheerful banter is interrupted by curious looks at the small sprung stage in front of them.

When Danish actor Claus Damgaard begins his portrayal of the troubled Prince Myshkin, his audience is quickly spellbound. In a hugely powerful one man performance, other characters are represented by clothes on coat-hangers which Damgaard lifts, chats to and re-hangs on springy clothes poles around him.

The initial distancing effect is soon penetrated as pupils clearly start to understand the Prince's isolated position. Like his creator Dostoevsky, Myshkin suffers from epilepsy and finds himself a social outcast.

Director Paul Jepson's adaptation of the novel, launched at the Edinburgh Fringe, is sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and follows detailed research into the condition, speaking to doctors, carers and sufferers themselves.

Video film of real seizures formed the basis of Damgaard's interpretation of both absence and major seizures on stage. The first time he fell full-length to the floor and convulsed violently for a painfully long two minutes, the audience was visibly movd. Laughter at his wet trousers was tempered by understanding of the Prince's agony in post-seizure confusion as he asked: "Oh no, have I had one? Where is my mother?" Little ripples of music signalled Myshkin's disorientating absence seizures and during one, when Damgaard stripped to his underwear, embarrassed giggles gave way to understanding looks.

In a workshop afterwards, Claus Damgaard and stage manager Sarah Northcott invited pupils to think about their everyday movement and the "stories" their bodies tell about themselves.

Learning about dramatic portrayal of different energy levels, volunteers were taught to walk around in catatonic, Californian and tragic modes. When some pupils were reluctant to act out, Damgaard alighted on characteristic Scottish reserve to point out the social implications of "being different". Coming back to the key issue of the play, Sarah Northcott asked pupils to write down what they thought it felt like to have epilepsy. They then talked about first aid and had the chance to meet a real live sufferer and ask questions.

The Idiot was also performed at Bishopbriggs High and Alloa Academy and continues its workshop tour in schools in England before moving to Denmark and the National Theatre in London.

Eleanor Caldwell


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