Exquisite Pain


“I decided to continue… until I had got over my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition”

A man and a woman tell stories of ordinary and not-so-ordinary heart-break, each story accompanied by a single iconic image. A red telephone on a hotel bed. A subway station. The view from a window. A green Mercedes.

The woman repeatedly recounts the story of the end of an affair; each time remembering it differ­ently, adding and subtracting details, finding new ways to both remember and forget what happened. The man tells stories from many different people; each a snapshot of sorrow, big or small, that takes its place in a growing catalogue of suffering, break-ups, humiliations, deaths, bad dentistry and love letters that never arrive.

Based on a project by the renowned French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain marks the first time that Forced Entertainment have worked from ‘a text’.  In this simple and intimate performance Forced Entertainment explore how language, memory and forgetting move to contain, preserve or erase events; how people come to terms with trauma. Exquisite Pain is about love, loss, and the stories we tell ourselves when things have gone wrong.

© Forced Entertainment 2005. Theatre performance. From a text by Sophie Calle.



Performers have included: Robin Arthur, Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden, Terry O'Connor
Direction: Tim Etchells
Text: Sophie Calle
Design: Richard Lowdon
Lighting Design: Nigel Edwards

Co-produced by Theater der Welt 2005 (Stuttgart), BIT Teatergarasjen (Bergen), The National Museum of Art, Design and Architecture (Oslo), Kaaitheater (Brussels), La Filature, scène nationale de Mulhouse, and Tanzquartier Wien.

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“Each detached delivery in this almost clinical production becomes surprisingly poignant and emotionally affecting... Hypnotising.” ****
Sunday Independent

“A chance for the audience to look at the nature of memory... Exquisite Pain artfully demonstrates Schopenhauer’s idea that ‘we remember our lives only a little better than a novel we have read’.” ****
Irish Examiner

“The marriage of Calle's text with Tim Etchells' minimalist, utterly uncompromising production is heaven-sent... I cannot recommend it strongly enough.” ****
The Guardian

“A wonderfully touching, intimate and stimulating experience.”
Islington Gazette

“The presentation by Forced Entertainment is extraordinarily restrained, even dry. Nevertheless, the effect is hypnotising... Exquisite Pain is a subtle testimony that journeys to the heart of the emotions.”
De Standaard

“Minimalist theatre, full of tension.”
SŸddeutsche Zeitung

“This modest evening is one of the most impressive in the festival.”
Frankfurter Rundschau

“A fragile piece of theatre… again with Exquisite Pain Forced Entertainment is dealing with big themes: love and death."
Frankfurter Rundschau

Programme notes and essays

Read the programme note by Forced Entertainment’s Artistic Director Tim Etchells here.

In London sometime in December 2004 I read the published version of Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain on a long underground train journey.

I loved the project’s form of repeated exchange. Its “I’ll tell you my sad story if you tell me yours”. It’s the kind of simple transaction that most of us have taken part in informally - in bars, cars or bedrooms – but in Calle’s hands, as she repeatedly exchanges her own story of failed romance for the stories of friends, acquaintances and strangers, the process is reduced to its mathematical and psychological essence; a ticking tit-for-tat of death, lost love, existential despair and bad dentistry. I enjoyed the absurd juxtapositions of stories – commonplace tragedies next to almost-comical melodramas and stupid or unbearable accidents – and I liked the way that different contributors seemed to trump, doubt or even refuse Calle’s invitation to describe “the time that they suffered the most”. Most of all perhaps I enjoyed the simple eloquence of the different micro-narratives and their periodic excursions towards self-analysis, self-aggrandisement, self-understanding or self-mockery.

Sitting on the train I looked up from the book from time to time and imagined the stories that my fellow passengers might have contributed, had Sophie asked them. At other moments, and with less distance, I tried to decide which story of suffering from my own life I might have added to her catalogue. A romantic disappointment? A medical nightmare? There were several candidates. I liked the way that, like all catalogues or lists, Sophie’s Exquisite Pain somehow invites at least the thought-experiment of adding things to it.

I loved the audacious repetition in the writing too; Calle’s obsessive circling of the topic of her own sadness, re-telling and re-remembering her story, getting closer and closer to it and at the same time further and further away from it. It seemed to me that, as well as wearing out her own pain, Calle was also making a very precise exploration of how telling something can change it, of how time and language enable distance.

Later the same week we held the first informal ‘rehearsal’ for what would become our staging of Exquisite Pain. Sitting on sofas in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying, Cathy Naden and Claire Marshall read the book to me as other guests rushed or drifted past, oblivious. It was clear soon enough that – having spent twenty years devising, improvising and otherwise creating our own performances – we now felt compelled, for the first time, to ‘do’ a text. And it was clear too that most of what we would need to ‘do’ would consist of exercising restraint. There is something so perfect about the declension of the Exquisite Pain text that our strongest desire was, and remains, to let it be there as simply as possible; unfolding, taking both its time and its toll in what may be the least theatrical but most effective way we can muster.

Two people sit in front of you and make their way through a collection of sad stories that belong to other people. A kind of bearing witness, a trip through the archive that Sophie Calle has collected, and a journey through her journey of remembering and trying to forget.

Tim Etchells
Sheffield, April 2005

Read the programme note by Christine Peters, then of Theter der Welt here.


Start one:
About ten years ago I happened to see a performance by Forced Entertainment for the first time: Showtime was highly playful, cunning and ironic and I fell in love with the company’s work immediately.

In a more or less continuous dialogue and cooperation with the group since then, I’ve seen their readiness to explore the vast field of contemporary art, their experiments with different media, their intellectual and emotional strength, and their playfulness, all of which have become a huge inspiring resource for my own work as a programmer.

Start two: About twelve months ago I met Sophie Calle, whose work I had been interested in and following for several years. In our discussion about projects, ideas and the relationship between different media it was she who encouraged me to invite an artist to stage one of her works, curious to see what would happen to it in a live setting, in front of an audience.

At this suggestion I immediately thought again of Forced Entertainment’s artistic director Tim Etchells, whose outstanding talent as a storyteller I appreciate just as I admire Sophie Calle’s risky, radical and autobiographical artistic approach.  Tim was excited by the challenge I proposed and, through a lucky coincidence of curious minds, both artists were ready for this adventure.

Tim chose to explore Sophie Calle’s project Exquisite Pain, a work which exists as a sequence of narrative text panels and corresponding photo-images and which was published in book-form in 2004.  A strong visual artwork that took almost fifteen years to complete, Exquisite Pain is an intellectually and emotionally disturbing piece. It’s also a kind of richly layered and perfectly fine-tuned ‘road movie’ whose obsessed protagonist – full of pain from her lost love – tries to overcome her suffering by comparing it to that of other people.

Connection again: Once you’ve read Calle’s Exquisite Pain texts and seen the photographs next to them, the link to the work of Forced Entertainment becomes immediately apparent: the narrative approach between true story and make-believe, factual and fictional, obsession, fatigue and melancholy, is the most obvious comparison, and yet if one looks closer another crucial and intriguing feature of both of their works soon becomes clear – ‘the travel aspect’:

“...with time I have become used to my last name, which, in Spanish means street, hence wandering... My first name means ‘wisdom’ in Greek so this gives ‘street smart’...

(Sophie Calle, in her notebooks 1978-79, a period when she was collecting books in which the name ‘Calle’ appeared)

In their 2001 project The Travels, Forced Entertainment explored their own urban microcosm of pain and pleasure. Visiting locations in the UK chosen because of their unusual or literal street-names alone, the group walked through unknown terrain for months. Between dusk and dawn, the performers invented or collected stories from their encounters in a landscape of derelict houses, graffitied walls, fences, one-way roads and dead ends. In doing so they composed a dense, almost imaginary country full of spooky, sad, funny, unpleasant and serious narratives.  The intimate actions and games of the company members, creating and collecting arbitrary situations during their lonesome journeys – raw material for the final theatre work – were in one sense already performances: intimate stagings of private diaries, drawings and dreams in deserted settings – each one a perfect little tableaux vivant, framed by solitude, anger, distrust and desire. The link to Sophie Calle, who for many years has made her work in precisely this space of travel, play and narrative, is clear.

Whether in the documentary style of performances like The Travels, or more theatrical pieces like Showtime, Forced Entertainment are masters of storytelling and economy, and masters of suspense.  Their theatrical and artistic qualities are exquisite, their radicality and courage, their hospitality and politics of friendship, legendary.

I have always imagined Peter Sellers (aka Inspector Clouseau) meeting Alfred Hitchcock secretly in Forced Entertainment’s home city of Sheffield to watch the company perform there – I am sure that they would have become addicted followers immediately.

And I hope that there will be many more followers and artists who take the same kinds of risk, who are not afraid of asking disturbing or surprising questions but who instead strive for an unmistakable, strong theatre.

Playful and skilful, emotionally touching, celebrating the pleasure of performing, seducing, disguising and unmasking. All at the same time.

The rest is silence.

Christine Peters
Stuttgart, April 2005


You can download an education pack about the show here.


Exquisite Pain DVD

Exquisite Pain DVD

Price: £44.50
A man and a woman tell stories of ordinary and not-so-ordinary heartbreak, each story accompanied by a single iconic image. A red telephone on a hotel...



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