I lost my flyer for Ridiculusmus’ Total Football, playing this week at our campus Nuffield Theatre. So, as my menopausal memory failed to recall the names of the company’s duo (David Woods and Jon Hayes) whom I have long admired for their physical virtuosity and talent for presenting wickedly funny yet socially insightful shows, I googled ‘total football’. Top of the Google list were: the ‘Total Football’ magazine (not on my non-sporting subscriptions list) and a Wikipedia entry for ‘Total Football’ that explains this as a Dutch invented term ‘given to an influential tactical theory of association football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team’. The entry elaborates: ‘Total Football’s tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them’. My knowledge of football, total or otherwise, is virtually zero, but reading this entry instantly encapsulated what I most enjoy about Ridiculusmus: the demands that the duo place on themselves to deliver a ‘high technical and physical’ performance.
Theatre tactics in this show call for absurdly fast-paced multiple shifts in character, time and place. The ‘pitch’ is an office space in which the real players are the bureaucrats who behind the scenes are determined on putting together a winning, United UK team for the Olympics. Own goals abound as civil servant Brian (Hayes), a man with a total lack of enthusiasm for or understanding of the sport (but with a heartfelt concern for his virility as his wife fails to get pregnant), is tasked by a ministerial official (Woods) to achieve this sporting win for the nation. Empathetically I was on Brian’s side, a total supporter of his failure to understand the tribal behaviours and enthusiasms for GB as a footballing nation (my favourite line in the piece is his bemused pondering as to why 22 millionaires go out to ruin a perfectly good lawn, a wonderful hint at and critique of the material inequalities between sports and theatre arts).
As these brief comments may already have made clear, it is the nation and an interrogation of contemporary Britishness that is at the core of the show. The failure to cohere as a much vaunted multicultural nation is encapsulated in the comic but utterly brutal ripping up of a book of notes kept by a non-UK national (an office cleaner) studying for the (ridiculous) citizenship test. The pages that lie scattered on the stage later fly into the audience in an apocalyptic meltdown of the office set: the flats collapse one after the other, Brian standing solitary in their midst, oblivious to their collapse but executed in such a way that from an audience point of view he appears to be in physical danger. A nation on the verge of multicultural defeat is powerfully evoked in this moment and viscerally felt by those of us in the audience experiencing the gusts of air that blow through the auditorium as the set falls. Associatively, as the independent enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster has recently been in the news, it’s hard not, seeing the show in this point in time, to be reminded of that tragedy and its political fall-out, not least as cornered into pretending he does have an allegiance to a football team, Brian chooses Liverpool.
The late Sarah Kane, as much a fan of Manchester United as she was of theatre, once said that ‘watching … actors perform is a little like watching United – when they fly, they take off together, and when they don’t, the collapse is truly ensemble’. As a duo, Woods and Hayes certainly ‘fly’ as ‘they take off together’. Their shows are all about teamwork. If at times in Total Football there felt like something of a struggle to ‘pitch’ all of their ideas about Britishness into one sporting match, I can forgive them for the alternative pleasures to be found in watching this team at work.
The closing moments find the team in a moment of quiet defeat and reflection. The two men sit side by side; they have opted for the less energetic sport of fishing. In an effort to reconcile their sporting differences after their disastrous attempts to put together a victory for the nation or to make the nation victorious, these final moments sound a far less competitive note. Gone are the energetic strains of virile, in-yer-face, footballing masculinity that colour some of the earlier routines (most notably and delightfully their Wayne Rooney chanting) and Woods’ particular repertoire of quick-changing characters. Still apart, but closer together, the one caresses the other’s back, not making physical contact, but by means of the fishing rod. It is an altogether far gentler comic touch that touches on how an aggressive, machismo defence of all things ‘British’ energizes values detrimental to an idea of a more inclusive, united nation.