Theatre Critic and Journalist

Assorted thoughts on Quizoola

Assorted thoughts on Quizoola

A great deal has been written about Quizoola, Forced Entertainment’s epic game of Q&A first performed sixteen years ago. Step into whatever space happens to be housing it and the piece feels curiously familiar, like you’ve not only seen it played before, but already rehearsed the various inner-monologues that bounce around your head throughout.

You scan the two performers, their clown make up blotchy and smeared, for the signs of mental exhaustion and boredom that Tim Etchells has written of so exquisitely and exhaustively. You pick up on questions that you’ve heard asked in the same context, albeit on a grainy video on some website or other. You spot the performers’ modes, their traits and preferences within the format: a keenness for gags, for example, or a tendency to interrogate. After a while, you get a bit bored, but you know that’s alright because you’ve read that boredom is an expected and encouraged response, so you notice your boredom and you smile to yourself and carry on regardless.

With all that in mind, I’m not going to attempt anything remotely comprehensive here. Instead, I’ll offer a few thoughts that occurred to me en route and off-piste, as it were – things that I’ve not read, that I’m not regurgitating – knowing there’s so much more. A few little personal surprises; freckles noticed on an old friend’s face.

(I should also add that, on account of having a second show to review last Saturday, I only saw the first half of the recent performance at the Camden Roundhouse. Obviously that makes this a limited account, as the six-hour duration is essential to Quizoola. This, then, might be considered a match report from someone who missed the second-half, but could make a reasonable stab at predicting what was going to happen. All I can do is extrapolate.)

Given the critical mass around Quizoola, its somewhat surprising how, experienced in real time, it approaches meaninglessness. With questions and statements pinging back and forth so constantly, sense rather falls out of the content. Though they fit the question, actual answers lose their import. At the point of asking, just as the question mark is reached, there exist a huge number of potential replies. You can’t help but answer the question yourself, silently and inwardly and, as such, recognise that others in the room have probably done the same. Several alternatives probably bounce around the performer’s head, but there are many more potential answers, possibly an infinite amount, that won’t occur to any of us in the room. The eventual actual answer, then, is just one of many. It feels arbitrary – more so than reports or transcripts suggest. Even beneath general meaning, the actual expression, the particular words in which sense is carried, are exchangeable. Over time, this arbitrariness, the sense that any given answer could easily have been other, serves to drain or bleach statements of real meaning. As it goes on, Quizoola hollows itself out.

The same, I suppose, is true of the questions, which pile up over time in much the same way. If that’s to a lesser degree, it’s because – within the context of the performance or game – we know where they come from: namely, the list held by the questioner. They are, mostly, preconceived and scripted, albeit delivered in an arbitrary order and, therefore, open-ended. In turn, these have been dreamt up, equally arbitrarily, at some previous point. Nor do they seem any less arbitrary at the given point of asking: any other question would do to continue the performance or game. What matters is not what gets asked, but that something gets asked.

In this way, Quizoola steadily boils down to its basic linguistic forms: questions and answers. We see the language game according to its rules. A question needs an answer. An answer needs a question. What better blueprint for human interaction? With this endless repetition, we begin to appreciate both not for their particular meanings, but as bare structures, onto which are hung a babble of words. Gradually, Quizoola simmers itself away. It reduces itself to nothing.

It does so, somewhat paradoxically, as it grows. Quizoola is a process of accumulation. As more and more questions and more and more answers are chucked into a skip, they become a single mass. We glimpse them alone only momentarily before they are subsumed into the conglomeration, replaced by another glimpsed fleetingly in its own right. Each utterance, question or answer, is ephemeral. It might leave a stain on the memory, but it dissolves, and this disappearing act is central to Quizoola’s meaninglessness. In and of themselves, the overwhelming majority of both questions and answers serve no purpose and have no meaningful effect. The whole thing is self-contained, such that the only effect of a given answer is to gently, almost untraceably influence the future ebb and flow of future questions and answers, not to mention the way they resonate for individual audience members, echoing or contradicting one another.

In fact, the only moments when one feels any direct and intrinsic effect – and these too are only within the system itself – are when a performer asks, ‘Do you want to stop?’ If the response is ‘yes’, the performers switch roles; if ‘no’, they continue as they were. Here the answer’s effects are immediate and obvious, but they are no less arbitrary. It is binary rather than complex, opening up two possible paths, one of which is instantly cut off, the other of which is followed. Yet the game continues either way. The questioning continues and so to, in turn, does the answering.

Alongside this, then, is the sense of being forced to continue. It rolls onwards for the whole six-hour duration. Once Quizoola is set in motion, there’s no stopping it. No matter how hard you scream, the rollercoaster continues until its natural end.

Further to this, the performer being questioned is forced into answering. It’s hardly surprising that, amongst the myriad of situations that Quizoola makes manifest (first dates, job interviews, television interviews, chats between friends, amateur philosophizing, quizzes), a sense of interrogation recurs particularly strongly. Every time a questioner raises his or her voice or repeats a question several times, as if rejecting a given answer, we see an interrogation.

It’s interesting then that the questions repeatedly return to sex. Even in the three hours that I was there, there were questions about the loss of virginity, lights on versus lights off and the strangest things to be stuck up cunts or into which dicks have been poked. Though the answers need not be true – and often, are so far-fetched to be obviously false – the impulse is to humiliate, to make a public spectacle of the other. It’s the same impulse that crops up in games of ‘Yes’ or ‘Sausages,’ where a particular answer is forced upon the player. In Quizoola, it finds an odd counterpart with the ignorance. Questions of general knowledge expose the player, forcing them to hazard a guess or admit defeat with a ridiculous response. It is a vulnerable position, given that we may well know the answer or expect them to know the answer. On this particular instance, Cathy was unable to list more than two people to have stepped on the moon, but she was also unable to offer a favourite verse of the Koran. As such Quizoola has a knack of puncturing pretension. There is nowhere to hide.

Moments that lack an answer, however, might be opposed by another form of vulnerability: those that (seem to) spark a genuine moment of reflection, that cause the player to pause and consider something really meaningful. Cathy is asked: “What are you going to do with the next forty-one years?” It takes her aback. It deserves proper thought and a proper answer. We see her mind turning the question over. The game has punctured through. Or perhaps it has been punctured. Or punctured itself.

Quizoola, then, hovers on the edge of meaning and meaninglessness. It is a restless night spent drifting in and out of light sleep, full of nagging concerns, in which dreams interweave with waking thoughts. And it goes on until morning.

Photograph:  Hugo Glendinning

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