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Melbourne International Arts Festival

Forced Entertainment: what a concept

Chris Kohn

Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess
photo Hugo Glendinning
Forced Enterainment, arguably one of the most important and groundbreaking theatre and cross-artform companies of the last 20 years, will be returning to Australia from the UK in October to present their new work, Bloody Mess, as part of Kristy Edmunds’ Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. Their first visit, with First Night and the durational improvisation And on the thousandth night...(RT 60, p27) at the 2004 Adelaide Festival, was received by audiences and critics with a combination of rapture, confusion and anger. For me it was the most exciting theatrical import since Romeo Castellucci’s Giulio Cesare in the 2000 Adelaide Festival.

According to the dictionary on my laptop, “entertain” can mean “to engage a person or audience by providing amusing or interesting material”, “to offer hospitality, especially by providing food and drink for people in your home” and “to turn something over in your mind, looking at it from various points of view.” ‘Forced’ is defined as “not natural or spontaneous, but produced by an act of will”, “not done voluntarily but out of necessity” and “done because somebody who has power requires it.” These definitions offer 9 permutations of what “forced entertainment” might stand for as a concept. Rehearsing (or entertaining) each one in my mind as a possible description of the work of Forced Entertainment, the performance company, each rings true. Necessary amusement, coerced hospitality, wilful contemplation, and so on. Crucial to the project of the company is a constant flipping between these definitions, and the uncertain status of the audience and performer within it (who is forcing whom? what is being entertained?). It’s an exciting field of possibilities, made so by the expertise with which the company gives these ideas a living, breathing form, in performance, in discussion and on the page.

There’s a lot I would like to say about Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess—the fraught space between the doing of performance and the theorising about it—at the same time, I don’t want to reveal too much. It is an experience best entered into without too much prior knowledge. A wild, awkward, noisy, seemingly anarchic yet very carefully constructed pastiche of performance art, bad comedy, melodrama, high school physics lecture and rock concert, it is an engaging, hilarious critique of the act of performance and, at the same time, a nostalgic evocation of adolescence. I saw Bloody Mess last year as part of a 2-day symposium celebrating and reflecting upon 20 years of work by Forced Entertainment, hosted by Lancaster University’s Centre for the Advanced Study of Contemporary Performance Practice and held at the Nuffield Theatre. The title of the symposium, a typical combination of artistic idealism and critical clarity, was “We are searching for a theatre that can really talk about what it’s like to live through these times.”

The conference had the feel of a family gathering, with a small attendance of theatre makers, academics and students, many of whom had a long history of engagement with the company. Mathew Goulish and Lin Hixson, of Chicago-based performance ensemble Goat Island were present. The companies have collaborated extensively and Goulish and Forced Entertainment’s Artistic Director, Tim Etchells, are the creators of the web-based Institute of Failure.

David Williams of Dartington College of the Arts gave the standout paper of the weekend. Williams influenced a generation of Australian theatre makers and students through his years teaching at the University of Western Australia and the Victorian University of Technology in the 90s before returning to the UK. His performance-presentation, titled “Welcome to Paradise (You’d Have Loved it) or, in that failing is your heartbeat” was prefaced as both “a meditation on memory, fiction, lies, maps and their gaps, and the productive limits of knowing,” and “a love song to Sheffield and Australia, and to our animal others.” It was a beautiful, rich, emotionally raw evocation of an individual audience member’s relationship with a theatre company over time. It was particularly powerful for me, as it was through witnessing David Williams’ lectures and being part of workshops and creative processes with him in Perth while an undergraduate student at UWA that I first was turned on to the idea of theatre as a site of enormous possibilities. Listening to him reflect on discovering the work of a company in a far off land by reading journal articles and seeing snatches of blurry single-camera VHS documentation, was vivid articulation of my own journey in relation to innovative work in Europe and North America, as well as the work of now defunct companies in Australia such as the Sydney Front.

Another memorable paper was given by Tim Etchells, Artistic Director of Forced Entertainment, the morning after the UK premiere of Bloody Mess. Still recovering from major heart surgery, there was a sense of deep tiredness, as if Etchells was carrying the previous 20 years on his shoulders, not with resentment but with a kind of weary, nostalgic contentment. The previous day, a speaker on a “failure” panel had quoted the great Charlie Rich—“I’ve tried, I’ve failed, Lord I feel like going home” as a kind of mantra for the company—and I felt this in Etchells’ talk. His work has always been about failure, the failure of performance, the failure of language, the failure of human decency, the failure of the Left. In Etchells talk, I realised just how much he means it. The company started out in Thatcher’s Britain, and after 2 decades of political performance finds itself in Blair’s Cool Brittania. In Etchells talk, I had the feeling that there is never any home to go to, only more trying and more failures as in the journey charted in Samuel Beckett’s famous advice, “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I first encountered the company’s work as part of the brilliant Kunstenfestival des Arts in Brussels in 2000. Scar Stories was perhaps not one of their more successful experiments. In the show, 2 actors—Terry O’Connor and Richard Lowdon—recite a list of stories about being scarred, pointing to non-existent marks on each other’s bodies as they do so. The audience surrounds them on 3 sides, very close to the stage due to an incredible seating rake. There is no embodiment of character, no mediation through performance forms, no narrative build, very little humour, very little levity. Afterwards it was as if nothing happened at all. I left that show with a very particular, and in hindsight, skewed idea of the company’s vision.

Seeing First Night and And on the Thousandth Night… in Adelaide 4 years later, I was able to really get a sense of the dystopian, excessive, brutally beautiful aesthetic which is central to the company’s long term project. Recurring motifs include bits of cardboard, lists, miniature stages-within-stages, words hand-written in paint, pantomime animal suits, beer, mess, British music hall entertainment, tits and lo-fi multimedia. Props, costumes, texts and ideas are often recycled from show to show. The company tends to pick over ideas that may have been left out of previous shows, or to develop ideas in one show which had begun in an earlier production. In terms of content, the company is obsessively interested in the rules of play which govern theatre, what is meant by “performer” and “audience” and what happens if these rules and categories are deliberately broken.

An aspect of Forced Entertainment that is not often written about is how strongly they are rooted in a particular culture—that of white, middle class England. The founders moved to Sheffield 20 years ago, because the beer and rent were cheap and they were able to be lost among the millions of people drawing unemployment benefits in Thatcher’s Britain while quietly going about creating theatre. They talk a lot about beer and football and drunken nights on tour. The forms most often referenced (and deconstructed) are music hall, amateur nights, pantomimes and school plays. Forced Entertainment picks over the bones of British culture—perhaps this is what gives the work such force, the underlying pathos of a great empire in decline.

Bloody Mess is the most user-friendly of the 4 shows I have seen by Forced Entertainment. Closer in form to First Night than their durational or metatheatrical experiements, it is a collage of overlapping theatrical experiments, ‘what ifs’, centering on the idea of ‘performance.’ If First Night was an investigation of the idea of an audience, then Bloody Mess turns the mirror back on the performers themselves.

Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess is part of the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 6-10, The CUB Malthouse

RealTime issue #68 Aug-Sept 2005 pg. 43

© Chris Kohn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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