I still find it hard to forgive Forced entertainment for their 2008 show, Spectacular. In the company’s signature style of playing with theatrical conventions, this show’s concern with ‘the strange game of playing dead’, performed by a skeleton-costumed Robin Arthur and a histrionic Claire Marshall, made for grim viewing. This was not least because while the purpose was to play with and on the idea that death in the theatre ‘can’t ever be convincingly represented’, it elided the possibility that, on occasion, for all the artifice of ‘playing dead’, theatre can awaken a sense of our own mortality, or the mortality of others that we know we may be losing, or those already lost to us. Indeed, at the time of seeing Spectacular I had just seen a painfully exquisite death scene performed by the actor Geoffrey Hutchings (who died just some two years later) in Declan Feenan’s St Petersburg, one of a series of short plays in the Bush Theatre’s Broken Space season (2008). Unlike Forced Entertainment playing with the idea of stripping away the apparatus of theatrical representation, at that time the Bush was forced to adopt a minimalist aesthetic and play in the dark, rather than having to go dark, after their lighting rig had become unsafe and in need of repair. The combination of Hutchings’ death-bed scene and a ‘condemned’ theatre space struggling to survive created an affectively ‘convincing’ ‘death space’: a space/ performance viscerally alive with a sense of mortality. In brief, given the proximity of seeing both of these shows, as far as the Forced Entertainment piece was concerned, while I got the conceit of their performance, it did not ‘get’ me.
What then to take from or make of their latest show, The Coming Storm? Gallows humour is back along with the familiar games the company play with theatrical conventions, in this particular instance with conventions of narrative. Fragmented stories – some personal, some fantastic, some evocative of cinematic scenarios – form the fabric of the show. For all the unfinished, broken, multiple narratives, compositionally The Coming Storm gives us a classic three-act structure: from the idea of the stories that we might expect (but will be overturned), through the crisis of falling into modes of dark storytelling that they were determined to eschew (a crisis marked by a wonderful rant from performer Cathy Naden), to the calm after the narrative storms that in the final moments leaves Cathy and Claire (Marshall) at a piano, picking out the notes to a sentimental song (‘Home on the Range’ – or at least I think that was the tune). Completing the female trio is Terry O’Connor, and while gender matters have sometimes tended to be unequal matters in certain of the company’s shows, here the three women are core to anchoring the composition; they are the sustaining force of the show’s rhythmic patterns. Cathy and Claire each also get to tell the most poignant and affecting story in the piece – of how a mother unable to feed all of her children must choose which one of them to die in order to save the others. And Claire’s durational physical motifs – dance movements that are delightfully ‘off’ – are exhausting to experience. There is no telling what her corporeally played motifs/stories might mean, but then that is their counterpointing function in the show: the meaning-making properties of narrative are invoked only to be revoked.
The male trio, on the other hand, are responsible for dark comedy and dark tales that get fabulously out of hand (hence Cathy’s terrific rant) – or rather two of the trio are. Richard Lowdon is pivotal to the gallows humour: monster-masked and bare-chested his physical antics distract from whatever stories the other performers are attempting to tell. Other times wearing the sack cloth hood of the condemned man he repeatedly tries to kill himself (in an electric chair, that’s fashioned out of wood, or by a noose that he struggles to hang from a lighting grid, impossibly out of reach). Phil Hayes gets to tell some of the shows most fabulous stories and has a final moment in a crocodile suit. Exiting he observes that he didn’t think it would be convincing, but he thought they’d got away with it. Robin Arthur, by contrast, has the least convincing and the most awkward role: quizzing why do or say this, or why not that, he’s rather like the figure of a director for whom a show’s directions keeping running away from him. It is a role that might serve to counterpoint the other two (males), but as things stand is rather out on a purposeless limb.
Was I brought back into the Forced Entertainment fold, after being so disillusioned with Spectacular? The Coming Storm certainly entertained. There is much pleasure to be had in the company’s enduring obsession with theatrical conventions. Yet this can frustrate when this feels like an end in itself, rather than serving to press on the contemporary landscape in a more deeply felt, urgent or politicising way (though as indicated above in the example of the mother’s story, there are some threads woven into this show that do touch a dark and dystopian nerve).
Moreover, if Spectacular left me with the feeling that it was time for the company to explore a new direction, The Coming Storm did awaken a future sense of their history: of what might emerge between the company’s enduring faith in their signature aesthetics and the group as an ensemble of aging performers. At two different points in the show, Cathy and Claire voiced their respective ages (50 and 46) drawing explicit attention to the aging process. The use of ill-fitting wigs and mis-fitting dresses may not be new to the company’s shows, but their significance renews as aging tears at the aesthetic fabric of which they are a part. From my point of view, for instance, I felt a sense of age liberation in the women’s various ‘failed’ attempts to perform a beautiful dance (Terry), exotic dance movements (Claire), or musical accompaniment (Cathy). Aging femininity as the women make spectacles of themselves serves to deepen reflections on narratives of the feminine in the contemporary landscape, at the same time as, overall, the ‘coming [age] storm’ for the company renders this show far more ‘convincing’ than ‘the strange game of playing dead’ in Spectacular; far more affective and effective in its theatricalised reminders of mortality.