|Robin Arthur, Claire Marshall, Spectacular, Forced Entertainment|
photo Hugo Glendinning
Eventually a woman (Claire Marshall) appears, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and announces into the microphone that she has come to do her death scene. This is a parody of all death scenes—something like a cross between a fatal poisoning in a Victorian melodrama, a soldier on the battlefield or a re-enactment of the infamous Alien stomach explosion. Her violent dying takes her across the width of the stage; it moves but is not moving. Arthur starts to critique her technique, offer suggestions: the sobbing is good, it’s subtle; but what does a dying person need with a microphone stand? And so Spectacular continues exactly along these parallel lines of enquiry for an hour and 15 minutes.
Throughout, Arthur tells us how we would have been reacting if we were watching the other show, the show that should have been. This absence is something of which we become increasingly aware. There’s the absence of the rest of the collective, the absence of any development. Conceptually, this could be interesting. Instead of passive spectators, avidly consuming spectacle, we are required to become co-creators, using Arthur’s descriptions of the mythical lost performance (one in which he makes his entrance on a staircase, in which there is a band, and girls who dance in figures-of-eight, and flickers of ticker tape) to create our own private shows. (Mine is sheer vaudeville; Spectacular Spectacular as the Moulin Rouge song goes.) This ploy is not unlike that of a Croatian arts critic who used to write reviews of performances without seeing them. Unaware a concert was cancelled at the last minute, he wrote his review as usual and was rumbled. His response to complaints? He’d seen the work in his head so, as far as he was concerned, it happened. It’s not new to Forced Entertainment’s practice either; it has often relied on our participation. (If you were bored after a couple of hours of their show 12am: Awake and Looking Down it meant you weren’t working your imagination hard enough.) Actually, in many ways Spectacular is more accessible than previous Forced Entertainment shows. We are watching an actor coming to terms with the loss of his play and this self-reflexivity is familiar territory for theatre audiences (Pirandello explored this terrain in the 1920s).
The difficulty I have with it in practice is that the absent show in Spectacular is also the ghost of shows past. Spectacle is something Forced Entertainment used to do so well: television screens, paper crowns, animal masks, cardboard signs, neon text, bad wigs, velvet capes, John Avery’s music, a whole starry universe, physical exertion, text like poetry that overlaps and contradicts and refuses to cohere...I’ve followed their work since 1990 but there is Robin Arthur, patting his belly, telling us his age (45), reminding us the collective have moved on. There has been a stripping down of their aesthetic, a desire to push audiences further. During their 25 years, preoccupations have changed. Forced Entertainment member Cathy Naden once said the Gulf War occurring during the making of Marina and Lee “crept into the text and little parts of the show” but was never explicitly referenced; here the Iraq War is. Why do we want to see death in the theatre when we are surrounded by it, Arthur asks? Yet death has always been a preoccupation (shootings, hostages held at gunpoint in apocalyptic newsrooms), so the question is perhaps self-directed.
The performers are still incredible. Claire Marshall has the kind of presence that means she could just sit there and you would want to look at her. (In fact, she did just sit there in Hidden J, in1994, with a sign around her neck saying “Liar.”) Robin Arthur’s actor in the skeleton suit is a tour de force. Except this time it isn’t enough. We are supposed to be watching two deaths: Marshall’s physical one, Arthur’s metaphorical one (‘he died a death on stage’, we say of an unfunny stand-up comedian) except that neither one dies. Marshall may only have a few lines but she has a guttural repertoire of grunts, groans, screams and heavy breathing and, like the bogeyman in a slasher horror, she too just refuses to die. This is the paradox: in a show about absence or space, there is no space. (Arthur even says so: “There’s no space here.” Barely a hiatus in his monologue. It’s as if he’s scared of the silence.) Despite the humour, it’s relentless. Not even painful. Just boring.
Lights go on and off, on and off, Arthur says. A reference to Michael Creed’s infamous Turner Prize installation? I begin to feel excited by spotlights wavering on empty spots (again like actors with no roles), or alternating between pink and yellow. Is this the point? That if you remove everything, we will invest whatever you give us back with more significance and delight? I can’t help feeling David Weber-Krebs’ This Performance set up expectations and frustrated them in a more elegant, minimal way (see Virginia Baxter's review).
I don’t doubt the boredom is intentional. “It’s a little bit disappointing”, Arthur says. It takes guts to drag your audience with you, to challenge their desire to be stimulated, to almost goad them into walking out and maybe it’s something Forced Entertainment can afford to try. (Is this the first time the collective lives up to its name?) The company has, deservedly, a loyal following. And when the mid-life crisis passes, we’ll all still be here, looking forward to something spectacular.
Forced Entertainment, Spectacular, director Tim Etchells, text Tim Etchells, Robin Arthur, the company; performers Robin Arthur, Claire Marshall, design Richard Lowdon, lighting design Nigel Edwards, Riverside Studios, London, Nov 6-15, 2008
RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 34
© Marie-Anne Mancio; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com