Two actors in search of a play, a joke or even a drink

 

A quirky theatrical troupe that defies description has stripped performance back to its basic ingredients

IT HAS been described as part radio play, graphic novel, science fiction and fable. Two protagonists set off on a roller-coaster ride through an urban dystopia. They get shot at, mugged and bitten by insects. They are pursued through subterranean tunnels and locked in refrigerated containers. They fetch up in haunted hotels and sinister funfairs.

None of this happens on stage, however. Instead, the actors of Forced Entertainment Company perform Void Storyas if it were a radio play. They sit at tables and turn the pages of the script, “doing” the voices and adding sound effects such as gunshots, rain and faulty phone lines.

It sounds as exhilarating as it is confusing – which, says the company’s artistic director Tim Etchells, is his kind of starting point. “One of my favourite experiences as a viewer, as a watcher of performances, or as a reader is that feeling that you’re drawn into something but you’re not quite sure where the ground is,” he says.

“You’re not quite sure what register this is in — or quite what your relation to it should be. That feeling that you’re on slightly wavering territory is really, really fascinating. And it’s something that we try to use a lot in our performances, particularly around, for example, humour and the tragic. We’re often working in that strange territory between something that’s really funny one moment and then two or three seconds later — or even in the same moment — it’s problematic. You’re looking at yourself and wondering why you were laughing at that.”

Forced Entertainment consists of six artists who began working together in 1984 with a view to exploring what theatre and performance can mean in a contemporary setting. “In doing so,” they declare on their website, “we’ve made lists, played games, spoken gibberish, stayed silent, made a mess, dressed up, stripped down, confessed to it all, performed magic tricks, told jokes, clowned around, played dead, got drunk, told stories and performed for six, 12 and even 24 hours at a stretch.”

They have also made gallery installations, site-specific pieces, photographic collaborations, videos and a guided bus tour. Small wonder that certain critics have asked whether they are, in fact, a theatre group at all.

“For us,” says Etchells, “every project in a way comes out of the ashes of previous projects. It’s this ongoing conversation in which we’re often skirting around to see if we can get a fresh take on something that we’ve done in a previous piece. Since the beginning, we’ve been informed by other kinds of practice — particularly performance, from the visual-art context.

“That’s probably why, in England at least, we’ve often been looked at with raised eyebrows in terms of whether this is actually theatre or not. Again, it has to do with our interest in the edges of things. The territory between theatre and visual art performance; between theatre and dance.”

Void Story,he explains, inhabits the space between sound and projected visual images.

“It’s between these two things that the event happens. The other two starting points for the piece would be our interest in this dystopian, almost science-fiction kind of urban landscape, which has been lurking and bubbling away in the background of so many of the company’s projects for a long time. The third thing – and I don’t know how we got to this, really – is distorting the voices of the performers electronically.

“There’s a kind of distortion and graphic novel feel to the images we use for this project, and so it seemed useful to make a similar distortion to the voices of the actors. It fits with the rather extraordinary changed reality of the piece.”

Whatever else Void Storymay be, however, it is above all a piece of storytelling.

“It’s really a narrative,” says Etchells. “But it’s a narrative that tries to exhaust itself by having too much in it. A narrative that tries to destroy itself as much as it tries to destroy the central characters who are set upon in this rather bleak, comical, urban fable.”

Which is, pretty much, where we came in.


Forced Entertainment’s Void Storyis at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, on Thursday and Friday