A lone performer takes to the stage, explaining that the show we're watching is somehow different tonight. The atmosphere is different, his entrance was off, the lights are wrong, some scenery is missing, some performers are absent. The tone is all wrong. Things are somehow falling to pieces, or maybe things are just now falling into place. The audience reaction, our protagonist says, is not quite what he expected, not quite what he's used to. Perhaps the fact he is dressed as a skeleton has something to do with it. When a histrionic actress arrives determined to do ‘her big death scene’ the evening gets stranger still.
Spectacular is about the now of the performance moment, the trembling edge of laughter, possibility and invention. It's about death and playing dead, about the strange contact between two performers on-stage and an audience caught between what they are watching and what they're being told.
© Forced Entertainment 2008. Theatre performance.
Conceived and devised by the company
Performers: Robin Arthur and Claire Marshall
Direction: Tim Etchells
Design: Richard Lowdon
Lighting Design: Nigel Edwards
BIT Teatergarasjen (Bergen) Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin) PACT Zollverein (Essen) Les Spectacles vivants - Centre Pompidou (Paris) Theatre Garonne (Toulouse) Tramway (Glasgow)
"It’s unsettling just how brilliantly this British group of artists master their craft."
"Welcome to the melancholy, wild, hilarious theatre world of Forced Entertainment.’"
‘a decidedly different “good night out” ‘****
‘a fascinating, haunting piece of work’ ****
‘Spectacular strips the flesh off theatre and gets right down to the bone.’ ****
‘Ping-pongs between the comic and the harrowing.’****
Programme notes and essays
Read the programme note by Forced Entertainment’s Artistic Director Tim Etchells here.
When the actor plays dead no one’s fooled for a moment.
We’ve long been gripped by the strange game of playing dead; that particular absurd edge of theatre in which the performers are charged with approaching the one thing, which above all others perhaps, can’t ever be convincingly represented. When we’re at the theatre after all, once all the drama and exertions of the death scene are done, the actor is always still breathing as she lies there on the floor. Always still breathing, eyes closed and waiting patiently for the curtain call. No-one’s fooled. No-one’s taken in. Doesn’t matter how much fake blood, how much yelling, how much sobbing, how much stillness. No one thinks this is real.
But at the same time there remains a strange charge to this game, a cultural and emotional electricity which crackles and sparks the air around the actor who lives-but-dies, or who lives but plays dead. The death scene. The appearance of the ghost. The appearance of death himself. As if the patent absurdity of these things – acknowledged, known by all – always contains nonetheless a flicker, shimmer, crack or opening to some other possibility. Like kids fooling with a Ouija board, intent on scaring themselves, we’ve been back around this again and again, always approaching from different angles, with different intensities, unable to let it be. We’ve been dying from the early shows like Let The Water.. with its glorious competition of tomato-ketchup movie deaths right through to the later works like Bloody Mess with its blank diva-death at the centre, a scene which Cathy claims with comical bombast will “break something inside you forever”. No one’s fooled. But still we come back – as a culture and as a group of artists - waiting till there’s no one around, drawing the curtains and starting to play dead again.
Spectacular, for its part, is two deaths sat side by side. One unexpectedly chatty and cheery, if somewhat philosophical, prone to distraction. The other agonised, exaggerated, abject and highly theatrical. The drama of these two together is something we were pulled to in rehearsals - a discovery that remained puzzling, upsetting, compelling in the months of devising. Each of these deaths – the theatrical emotional and the pantomime thoughtful - has its own comedy, and each its own seriousness, as if the performance wants us poised on a knife edge, balanced but unstable on the weird border of gravity and farce.
At the same time, right next to these comical, serious and unimaginable deaths, Spectacular concerns itself with another kind of absence. The stage is bare for the performance and much of what we’re watching in its hour and fifteen minutes is, simply speaking, not there. Instead it’s a performance which explores the possibility of language – of how words can work to summon events, describing things, and, in a certain way, making them happen. What’s spoken in performance after all hovers, gains tangibility, and with the imaginative participation of an audience begins to appear.
Spectacular is in many ways a simple piece with its two deaths braided around each other, but a constant binary of emotions and thoughts which gets more complex the longer you stare at it, and which we hope creates something at the same time fragile, vivid and visceral.
Read the programme note by Stefan Hilterhaus of the PACT Zollverein here.
Opening Up Space
A short while ago, I came across an interview with an astronaut: ‘The fundamental principles of perception, in fact of any action, are so completely turned upside down in outer space, that in spite of the many tasks there’, he said, ‘weightlessness produces an unparalleled feeling of freedom.’ Despite having a happy life, with a family waiting for him at home, he added, there were times up there in the freedom of space, where he wished that he would simply never have to return to earth.
That I’m seized by a similar feeling of exhilarating freedom in the performances of Forced Entertainment may at first seem like a contradiction, since these performances so relentlessly take place down here in the everyday world of work, bodies and daily life. And yet this sense of freedom is there.
We live in a time in which the culture seems set on replicating the same set of dreams, emotions and lifestyles in each of us and is designed to hide differences, faults and contradictions. For this reason perhaps, it’s liberating to see a handful of performers who want no more than to show themselves for what they are.
One topic, a few rules, a meagre set and props consisting mainly of found objects – these things leave the actors of Forced Entertainment very little to hide behind and scant room to manoeuvre. Nothing is controlled or hidden by design, instead life with all its contradictions comes into direct contact with the disaster of empty promises, and with illusions that are both a blessing and infinitely sad.
Sat in the theatre I am sharing this beautiful but unspectacular space with them. They share with me the questions that I either don’t dare to ask or the ones to which I know no answers. They make big claims, tell tall tales, make great illusions, all of which they then immediately start to dismantle again before my very eyes. In this dark, concentrated room of the theatre, they create something that cannot quite be separated from real life, that doesn’t ever try to be more than it is – an act of public pretending - and which somehow points us outwards, to those things that lie beyond. Under the surface of what I am watching, an unbelievably lively, funny, complex, exciting and liveable life reveals itself. I am right in the middle of it, floating almost. Perhaps that is what being in space felt like.
In each of Forced Entertainment’s works the performers pull me subtly into a kind of open dialogue. I am in the audience but am also a co-performer, an accomplice and co-author in what happens. The way the actors merge the fictive and the autobiographical, mixing direct dialogue with rehearsed scenes, sucks away the limiting walls of theatrical space. Behind them, a corridor appears – a space that allows the audience room for the questions, doubts, helplessness and the courage needed to see the complexity of everyday life.
Reality bursts out into the space of theatre and as it does so subjects everything to renegotiation: the rules of the stage, the game, the roles, the boundaries between reality and representation and the relationship to the audience. Over and again watching this work, I discover the familiar and experience something like stability only to find it immediately undermined by humorous, heartrending and otherwise unexpected twists and turns.
This is how I want theatre to be. This opening up of space. To become an accomplice instead of being reduced to a consumer. With just a stage and a few props, Forced Entertainment reveal more about our relationship to the world and the great questions of our existence than an entire encyclopaedia could. Theatre can probably do no more. At least, not on earth.