Battersea Arts Centre, 19 June 2012
The Coming Storm by Forced Entertainment, starts before the performers have even entered, with a stage stripped of legs and wings, props stacked, and costumes hung on rails left and right.
It feels like Sheffield’s world-renown improvised theatre group are taking us backstage, and that the workings of the theatre are about to be exposed.
Six performers in street clothes enter and face the audience in a line before one woman steps forward to pick up a microphone that was lying on the floor.
Looking for the deconstruction, I start to think of the handheld microphone as signalling the primacy and directness of the voice, whether it’s speaking, story telling, lecturing or singing. A microphone is an inconvenient thing to hold and makes no secret of the relationship between performer and audience. Here it seems to deny us the deceptive act of invisibly observing a staged spectacle.
A story is…
The woman holding the microphone begins deadpan with a “A story is…” to present a long series of declarations of what makes a story; ‘actually beginning something’, ‘a dynamic charismatic central character’…
More exposure of the form I wonder. Is this a lecture? A workshop?
But no, it appears that a story is starting to unfold within this knowing monologue – for she is a dynamic central character as her declarations become more intense and impassioned, relationships between the performers that echo the declarations are hinted for example with glances (while an abstracted love story is recounted “A loves B, B loves C, C is not bothered”) or reordering (‘oh look’ I think ‘…now they are split into men and women’).
Then as she is about to reach a crescendo someone takes the microphone from her hand and her frenzy is punctured with a comical knowingness that breaks the theatrical illusion that started to form. ‘Thank you Theresa…” and he goes on to start a spoken story that escalates only to be interrupted by another performer taking the mike, starting a new story in a different direction with a different tone. And so it continues with cuts between darkness and melodrama and comedy. For example an emotive explanation of how a theatre audience should be left feeling “I’m glad I’m not the one alone and injured on the stage, I’m glad I’m not…” is interrupted with someone’s comical story about their friend – and with this abrupt cut in the tension the performers spread out across the stage.
Speech, music, movement
After several of these props and costumes are introduced to add layers to these stories, no longer just spoken but somehow enhanced or developed by the physical. And then after some time music is added as a drum kit and a guitar a piano are played and moved around the stage (see here how the introduction of the physical instruments does not jar but draws on the vocabulary/ rules already introduced for the movement and use of props – one strand of action gives birth to another strand of music).
And so there are clearly three strands within the piece – text, movement and the music, each are used in combination to complement each other (for example music might sometimes add poignancy to a spoken story), to transform another element (perhaps an activity in one corner of the scene may grow to become the foreground of a scene that replaces it or a misunderstanding may reinterpret one element) or to break it entirely (for example apropos of nothing a man in a crocodile suit enters and starts attacking another) bringing about a new tone or scene or dynamic.
As the piece unfolds certain tools items (a bundle of branches that represent a tree, a rope) and themes (a story about a fairground) and characters (the stuntman Killer) reoccur between episodes – which help the audience find some stability amongst the ever changing landscape but also create new layers on in jokes and referencing as ideas from apparently unconnected stories/ worlds make guest appearances, creating links and connections in the minds of the audience even if they are nonsensical sometimes.
As each takes the microphone on us for interrupting the flow starting a new narrative setting the rules tone o the piece which involves constant interruption average before they’re subtle references to stories abstracted to look through their relative position example ADSP dealer see me that men and women with CML splitting gender lines are entitled about what buildings should feel like the piece is.
The single microphone reveals itself as a device to generate conflict unlike the action component (which is democratically available to all on stage at all times) or the music (which exists through three instruments and so allows for some dialogue). Instead the microphone and the access to amplified speech and the story telling is only available to one person at a time. So the microphone is constantly driving the interruption and breaking of the piece.
And harking back to the opening balance between the meta-narrative referencing what a story is, so throughout the piece there is a balancing act between exposing the construction and what is constructed. The construction that we see is like a game of interference and support – sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental – are we watching the creation process, the improvisation workshops that led up to the piece? And this in itself alludes a deeper narrative that relates to the performers/ people themselves, one-upmanship and co-operation in the creative process. On the other hand we also follow the stories themselves as they bubble up between the three strands and then fall away again.
The stories themselves come closer to some sense of fruition or resolution as the components are layered but they never quite reach that satisfying conclusion. The most musical elements with drums and bass guitar come closest to any feeling of unthinking accepting catharsis but these sequences always end up being broken too by the absurdism for example of asking whether a character form a previous song is in this new one or by swinging the piano around on a rope.
After two hours this failure to launch sits strangely, as a progressive dramatic arc that we have been taught to expect in the theatre never really appears and so there is a sense of failure when considered in conventional terms. A failure to transform the audience given its episodic structure.
It leaves a question (not a new one) of whether theatre can be complete without an authoritative narrative (of the type this alluded to in the opening speech, without a monomyth (the classic heroes journey) or does it only amount to a series of exercises, playful explorations of the rules that are employed to make and receive meaning from traditional theatrical components.
It might be a step too far to interpret this as a direct attack on the western Christian and post-Christian believe in progress of the sort made by philosopher John Gray (as opposed to a more cyclical or non linear notion of human development seen in Eastern philosophy). But it certainly opened up this as a train of thought for me.