Real Magic by Forced Entertainment at MAC, 23rd November 2017, 8pm.
What appears to be a low-brow piece of postmodernism is actually rich in high-brow political and cultural issues.
The six members of Forced Entertainment have put on acclaimed work for over thirty years. As contemporary companies go, they stand out for their experimentation with narrative, character and current affairs. What was important for this production was that, as an audience member, you had some background knowledge on what the performance conveyed about wider contexts. Otherwise, what appeared onstage was no more than three actors who performed a repeated sequence and never achieved their end goal. Jerry Killick, Richard Lowden and Claire Marshall alternated between three roles on a rectangle of green turf with a microphone, blindfold and placard. There were three of the latter prop entitled: ‘CARAVAN’, ‘ALGEBRA’ and ‘SAUSAGE’, respectively. Each of these was a visual sign for a word the holder was thinking of. What manifested in each scene was an incorrect answer from the guesser. The company framed the piece like a cabaret (or gameshow) to serve as what artistic director Tim Etchells called a ‘microcosm’ of the world at large. The audience was made to feel a great sense of detachment as an audio loop of another crowd laughing played at random intervals. This created the illusion that another audience was present; we might have been made to feel as though in a different space to the performers altogether. Nevertheless, the heavy repetition had the effect of wearing the patience of some watching. There were comments later where people almost shouted the word aloud themselves because the actors had failed to do so. The company’s work was bound to have divided opinion: some people really appreciated the subtle manner in which global issues were confronted; others did not see any value in the repetition of dialogue.
There was an opportunity for a Q&A post-show discussion. Here I asked about their choice of costume which contributed to the overall design. Much of the show was dominated by bright yellow chicken suits which the performers made the most of with a rather arbitrary ‘dance’ as an interlude between scenes. The actors stressed to me that design, especially costume, is not carefully decided far in advance. Instead, the creative team try to find opportunities where dress pieces can be embedded. Apparently, the chicken suits had been stored away for several years, while the oversized blazer and trousers were once worn by Michael Gambon. I think this spontaneity is reflected in how the company devise their work; it’s what keeps each performance fresh and despite the long-winded repetition, the actors succeeded in making each scene unique and varied. Etchells has spoken about how the events are ‘changing all the time’ despite the fixed repetition in the narrative. Scenes could last for as long as fifteen minutes or as little as thirty seconds. This depended on how the actors paced their speech and interacted with one another; devoted to finding thought of word, or completely indifferent to the game being played. Consequently, there came notable influences that hinted the dark, absurdist comedy of Samuel Beckett, to create both a ‘serious’ but ‘comic’ atmosphere, according to the director. Although scene changes were very swift and did not involve any exits and entrances, the actors clearly distinguished changes in character. So much so, the audience became invested in the narrative events, a little ironic as the result of each scene never changed. Forced Entertainment were pleased the audience responded in this way, although, by the halfway point, I admittedly became frustrated with the lack of progression. Of course, this idea lay at the show’s core: the performers kept returning to the ‘impossible mind-reading challenge’ in the hope that change would be enacted.
The post-show talk additionally referred to ‘low production values’ the company are fond of. As expected from this, little set was used, but it was sufficient to support the actors. Six long LED ‘sticks’ stood across the stage width. An example where this enhanced the atmosphere was when a ticking clock sound effect was played and the light passed from one stick to the next, back and forth. Connotations of ‘trash’, ‘late-night television’ were conveyed here, and perhaps this context of performance linked to more significant issues in culture today. Any present critique is bound to include the Brexit process and U.S. government, but I was impressed with how subtly the company dealt with such topics, albeit very indirectly. The words each ‘contestant’ guessed (“electricity”, “hole” and “money”) served as a starting point for the issues to be exploited. For example: “hole in the ozone layer” and “hole in public finances”. That is the skill of postmodern and experimental performance: there are always problems in society to explore; the method(s) used to convey them is more important. A final point to raise would be the performance duration. Some of my peers found that it lasted too long; the content could have been covered in less than an hour. Agreeably, the ninety minutes it took to stage may have fared better with the audience if condensed. However, the company mentioned how this duration was necessary because it made our sense of time ‘elastic’. In other words, we had lost our awareness of how long the performance had lasted, and this all linked back to how institutions and governments prevent desires for change.
You can guarantee that Forced Entertainment will elicit some response from their audience. Whether people can identify with the manner of their performance style remains a pressing question. Regardless, this is the kind of revolutionary theatre that is beginning to break into the mainstream.