FAILING WELL: Forced Entertainment “Spectacular” @ Riverside Studios, Autumn 2008

“Why are we sitting here watching this?” is a question most theatre would like to avoid its audience asking.  Forced Entertainment revel in this kind of awkwardness.  Their work is an open wound – performance that leaves unanswered the question what performance might be.

Spectacular’s sparseness is surely its main tactic in setting up this special discomfort. Dressed in a skeleton suit, Robin Arthur shuffles onto the bare stage at the start of the show to explain that the 4-piece band that usually play are absent, as are the dancing girls and the glitzy staircase he would normally have descended to rapturous applause. His attempt to fill the blank space with descriptions of extravagant theatrical interludes has a natural sense of comic embarrassment to begin with, but before long his monologue tends towards a monotonously self-fulfilling commentary: “Sometimes I think people think I’m boring,” he says – and it’s difficult not to agree.

Just then Claire Marshal appears, wanders up to a microphone and asks to do her “big death scene”. She proceeds to perform absurdly over-dramatic death-throes for the rest of the show.  If he is a study of intellectual ineffectuality she is pure visceral affect.  Defined in opposition to each other, the two performer’s competition for our attention is the show’s other main conceit.  Jealous, he belittles her ‘basic’ performance, or else coaches her to ‘underplay’ whenever her routine becomes too exuberant. She takes her revenge by punctuating his analytical tirade with primal moaning.

In the mid 1960’s the modernist art critic Michael Fried condemned sculptures such as Carl Andre’s stacks of breeze-blocks in terms of their “theatricality”.  To him these bastard artworks seemed to be poking fun at ‘proper’ sculptural concerns (form, materiality, weight etc).  Ironically Fried’s incensed reaction helped supply minimalism with its theoretical basis – the deliberate disappointment of expectation by which the viewer’s attention is shifted beyond the object itself and towards the context of viewing.  Can we say that something similar is going on here?

How do we measure the success of a show that sets out to fail? Perhaps it has to to with the quality of the audience’s discomfort.  Charged unease can be a challenging and thought-provoking experience.

If in no other way, Spectacular succeeds in imparting a lasting sense of annoyance.

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About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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