Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bloody Hippo World Mess

Apologies for the unforced absence. Turns out i'm really lazy. Who knew?

Saw a preview of Chris Goode's Hippo World Guest Book at Arts Admin's Toynbee Studios. First up, what a lovely complex. i didn't even realise it existed, despite having been to parties at Toynbee Hall. i hereby resolve to drink more coffee and see more things there.

The show was lovely, sweet, funny and depressing by turns, but i don't want to say too much about it cos it was only a preview. Suffice to say, it's certainly in my top two ever plays about websites about hippos i've seen. And that it raises all kinds of interesting questions about the way we communicate or don't, the way the body relates to the text we produce, and that there's a whole essay to be written on the way it problematises the assumptions on which verbatim theatre builds its dramatic house of straw, whilst still being a piece of verbatim theatre of sorts. If you're going to be in Edinburgh, i'd highly recommend it.

Then i saw Forced Entertainment's Bloody Mess - part of Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown. Bloody Mess is the piece they made to celebrate their twentieth anniversary of being a big ol'experimental theatre company (whatever that means). Now, i saw Pleasure by Forced Ent when i was seventeen and it blew me away. When they did their 24 hour show Who Can Sing A Song to Unfrighten Me i spent a total of 18 hours watching it. Recently, however, their work hasn't thrilled me in quite the way it once did.

There's plenty to celebrate about 20 years (more now) of Forced Ent. Anyone who saw Katie Mitchell's Attempts On Her Life at the National may well have spotted their influence looming large, and on that stage that's a victory that shouldn't be taken lightly. But there's also a difficulty in producing theatre to celebrate a theatre company who are so intimately concerned with failure - the failure of narratives, the failure of performance, the failure of understanding. What happens when your failure gets successful? When your mess isn't really a mess because it is so securely contained within a dramatic framework that you've established over the years?

And the problem with the piece (or one of the big problems with the piece) is that it is never at risk of failure. What we're seeing looks a bit like failure (people say they're going to do something - tell a story say - and then they do it badly and everyone else around them conspire to fuck it up by playing, variously, with a smoke machine, the sound effects, giving unhelpful support and advice, interrupting to talk about sex, you know, all the kind of shit that goes wrong when you're in a Forced Entertainment show). It smells a bit like failure too - the person who's trying to do something will get annoyed and shout at the people who are fucking it up for him. But it isn't actually failure. Why? Because this is the whole point. There was never any hope that anyone would tell a story. Never any chance that anyone would actually do anything. So it's no loss when they don't. So it just doesn't matter. The failure is so obviously, so obviously the point, that it just isn't actual failure.

At their best Forced Ent can debunk what they're doing, can comprehensively fail, yet still somehow actually manage to achieve something. So you get something that is funny and stupid and yet somehow dignified and beautiful. But this rarely happens here. The opportunity is there for some really powerful moments, but this opportunity has not been taken. So when we're told that we're going to have a beautiful silence (and we're told at length - two naked men suggesting the exact type of beautiful silence we could have for a very, very long time, and we know they are going to go on, and on, and on - that they are not going to stop at the point that we would normally consider this boring, and that we're going to have to sit and watch it or walk out - and some do - the Ents love to play on this tension and whether or not you like them pretty much seems to depend on whether you're prepared to let them do this without thinking that they're wankers) it is, obviously, constantly interrupted. Thing is, if you want a five minute long (cos that's the length they set) silence to fail, you don't need to have actors talking through it - it'll fail anyway. People will move, clothes will rustle, the speakers will hum, you can proabably even hear the lighting grid. But in the attempt to have a five minute silence, and in the failure of that attempt we may learn something about silence and something about failure and we may experience something that comes sufficiently close to silence, something that is sufficiently rare and special, that it becomes beautiful and valuable and worth something. What I'm trying to say is that actually trying to have a five minute silence, actually bloody-mindedly sticking to it, actually forcing that particular entertainment on us instead of playing up to us by distracting from it with a load of jokes would be cool, would feel daring, and would generate genuine tensions - between performance and audience, hope and failure, experience and meaning. This doesn't. Instead we get a lot of bad jokes about not being able to have a silence, and a pretence at frustration from the performers who purport to want a silence, but we know it's only a pretence and, crucially, we don't buy into the pretence, because the Ents have already pretty thoroughly debunked pretending.

And yet, and yet - i went with Lily who was seeing them for the first time, and who said she just. wanted. to. scream. throughout the show. And i found myself defending them. Gaaarr. And not just saying look, there's good bits in it (and there are - the opening's great and there's a brilliant Gorilla). This is the thing about Forced Ent - just when you think you can not like what they're doing, you end up having to argue that people have got them wrong, and that there's actually nothing wrong with what they're doing. (Which is why when i wrote this -the only 'proper' review i've ever written in that i went as a critic on a press ticket, brrrr - i did it in the form i did.) Maybe i'm just so egotistical that i can't bear the idea that someone dislikes something for a different reason than the one that i dislike it. But maybe there are still fights to be won about what constitutes theatre, about what you can do with theatre, and about what we should expect from theatre, and the things that forced ent seem to be saying are things which need to be said, and are right, but right now, they just aren't saying them very well. And frankly they should be, because when you're Britain's leading experimental theatre company (whatever that means), it's your job.

ps - i've referred to them as the Ents for much of this post in the hope that Mathew Warchus will dress them up as trees and put them in his show. Fingers crossed...


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