Forced Entertainment: Who’s Forcing Whom?
Published by the Dublin Theatre Festival, 11.10.2012
Stories, it’s often said by people who say such things, are uniquely human things. We see the world – need to see the world – in narrative terms, as a series of linked events, in causal chains. They’ll also tell you that the ability to lie is uniquely human and, as a result, so is the ability to pretend. All of which makes theatre about as uniquely human an activity as you’ll find.
Good stories – satisfying stories – are essentially well-behaved. Like good little boys and good little girls, they do what’s expected of them. They follow set paths, from beginnings to middles to ends, so that hero beats villain, good little boy gets good little girl and mankind overcomes adversity. They are, essentially, lies or, at the very least, pretences.
Forced Entertainment are, and have always been, suspicious of good stories. After all, the world isn’t as neat and tidy as all that. Villains get girls, heros get beat and adversity sometimes overcomes mankind. There aren’t really goodies and baddies. There aren’t really beginnings, middles and endings.
Maybe that’s why it took Forced Entertainment 25 years to tell a single story that went from start to finish in a straight line. Ostensibly, 2009’s Void Story was a linear narrative, telling the story of a man and a woman in flight from some unknown danger. Having been attacked in and turfed out of their flat, they travel through cities, suburbs and sewers, encountering one improbable hazard after another.
Not that that linear narrative was at all well behaved, however. It had no narrative arc, as such; no build, no climax and no conclusion. Instead, it took linearity to the nth degree: a story of continual ‘and thens,’ that churned through events – bear attacks, murders and dance marathons – and simply forgot about them as one thing followed another.
Despite the company’s misgivings, however, stories have always been at the heart of their work. They just don’t look like good – well-behaved – stories. In And On The Thousandth Night (2000), a row of kings in cardboard crowns tell all manner of tales for up to six hours, only each one goes unfinished, interrupted by another’s beginning. The World In Pictures (2006) tries to tell the story of history in its entirety in under two hours, an impossible task that, sure enough, unravels.
Formed in 1984 by a group of recent Exeter University graduates, who moved to Sheffield soon afterwards, Forced Entertainment is now comprised of a core of six artists – Claire Marshall, Robin Arthur, Richard Lowdon, Cathy Naden, Terry O’Connor and artistic director Tim Etchells. In the 28 years since, they have created an expansive and multifarious canon of more than 50 projects, spanning theatre, visual art, film, text and digital media.
Much of Forced Entertainment’s early work, in the eighties, was characterised by its raucous freneticism. Etchells has described their storytelling style as being “built on shifting sand and made of channel-hopping”, so that we saw fragments of different stories cut up and collaged. Snippets of Hollywood were shuffled with the desolation of Thatcher’s Britain. There were kidnappers, cowboys and Northern-town Elvis impersonators.
“Maybe at one point we were governed by this idea that a show ought to be X, Y and Z,” Etchells told The Stage in 2008, “It ought to have some running around, it ought to have some music – and that was what we did. Over the years, that sense of what a show might be has loosened. We became more interested in liveness and in contact with the audience, flirting with the possibilities of having a hundred, two hundred or three hundred people sat watching.”
In other words, they became increasingly interesting in the stories of their shows themselves: how those shows played out as events. The focus became the absurdities and failures of theatre itself. The company has a love-hate relationship with their chosen medium and treat it with both celebration and scorn. As Tim Etchells said in an interview with the theatre academic Adrian Heathfield: “For me, there’s an inherent ugliness in theatre because it is always trying to do something to you. It wants something.” The same can be said of good little stories.
As such, Forced Entertainment have always revelled in absurd pretences. They regularly play dead, using tinned spaghetti for spilled guts and ketchup for blood, and dress up in shoddy animal costumes. Their durational performances aim to stretch and distort the theatrical event, lasting six, eight, even, in the case of Who Can Sing a Song to Unfrighten Me (1999), a full 24 hours, much of which is filled with repetitive sequences and extensive, unforgiving lists. What colour, they’ve asked, can be found in boredom?
Other shows have just disintegrated and fallen apart. In First Night (2001), a line-up of am-dram vaudevillians with fiercely fixed smiles set out to entertain but swerve into bitterness and angry competition. Bloody Mess, made three years later, collapses inwards under its own weight, as each performer tries to wrestle control and hog the limelight, until all that remains is, quite literally, a bloody mess.
Within all this lurks a dark, ambiguous comedy; one that delights in the hamfisted and cack-handed. A frequent Forced Entertainment tactic is for their ‘characters’ – though this word itself isn’t quite right; personas, perhaps – to start by laying out their intentions. They then fall a long way short, subverting the very rules they’ve just run through. Showtime (1996) starts with a dummy’s guide to how theatre ought to work and then disregards it. It ends with a man holding the audience hostage, a cardboard bomb strapped to his chest.
The Coming Storm starts similarly, with a list of all the necessary ingredients for a good story. Of course, what follows refuses to conform. The stories that follow – absurd, banal, hackneyed, overblown stories – are a long way from best behaviour.
One criticism Forced Entertainment have faced in recent years is that they aim too directly at failure. That the failure they show us, carefully choreographed in a rehearsal room, is not really failure at all, but a simulation of it. They set the bar, take a run-up and hurtle headlong into it, breaking the bar in the process.
The Coming Storm, by contrast, refuses to even break satisfyingly. This is no neat hatchet job. Instead, it meanders off all over the place in a sort of woozy, drunken zigzag. Every point follows the last, but the whole seems to grow confused, rather like a word puzzle where, by changing one letter at a time, you end up with a completely different, unexpected word.
Rather than snapping asunder, The Coming Storm disintegrates and decays. Tangential offshoots become central. Stories bleed into one another, so that one tale’s villain is subsumed as another’s romantic lead. It is a dizzying, bamboozling watch; one that makes you lose your bearings. You know where you started, but ninety minutes on, you’ll wonder quite how you ended up here.
These are stories behaving badly and, in that, they are uniquely Forced Entertainment’s.
Photograph: Hugo Glendinning