Review: Ontroerend Goed, Forced Entertainment ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review: Ontroerend Goed, Forced Entertainment

For Ms TN, North Melbourne is the Twilight Zone of Melbourne suburbia. The first challenge is getting there. Theoretically, you can get there in a trice, especially if you're travelling from the Western Suburbs, which are after all on the same side of town: but the train station is eccentrically situated a half hour walk from where the action is (if conveniently close to the Lost Dogs Home). These days, as a paid up - if automobile-challenged - member of the haute bourgeoisie, I just catch a cab. I'll keep doing that until the money runs out; even if I have to explain where it is to the cab driver, sometimes a fascinating exercise in itself, there's less chance that I'll end up, ruffled and sweaty, circling disconsolately in the outer edges of Kensington or Carlton.

Once you're there, you still have to get to where you're going. This is where my infallible sense of indirection kicks in. Maybe the souls of slaughtered animals of centuries past crawl into my consciousness and up-end my inner map, or maybe a disaffected wizard put a spell on the streets to confuse strangers, or maybe the streets are feral and move around behind your back. I don't know. What I do know is that I have lived in this city for nigh on three decades, and I still get lost in North Melbourne.

All the same, I know I have to go there more often. The Meat Market is surely one of the most beautiful venues in Melbourne, and Arts House keep on mounting stuff that I want to see. I'm willing to sacrifice even my directional dignity on the altar of high art. The only problem is that the Arts House seasons are so short: this week's commitments mean I have no chance of getting to see Panther or Suitcase Royale, which makes me even more disconsolate than when I walk briskly for 15 minutes and find myself just around the corner from where I started. Which is what happened last week, when I went to see Ontroerend Goed and Forced Entertainment. I smugly thought I'd see two shows in a single evening, running from the Meat Market to the Town Hall in the quarter hour gap between events. My best laid plans, alas, came unstuck when I ended up in Flemington Road. So I opened up the envelope labelled "Plan B" and saw two shows in two nights.

But enough about me. What about the shows?

Last week’s program included the Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen, a performance by and about adolescents directed and devised by Belgian director Alexander Devriendt, and Spectacular by Forced Entertainment, the company which for the past two decades has set the agenda for innovative theatre in Britain.

Once and For All was a major hit at the Edinburgh Festival, and has toured widely to great acclaim. The show it immediately bears comparison with is, oddly enough, from another Belgian company, That Night Follows Day. That very beautiful work was a collaboration between Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells and Belgian company Victoria, and was part of last year's Melbourne Festival. Like Once and For All, it explores the gaps in perception between youth and adulthood by having young people themselves address the audience. Its large cast was somewhat younger than the performers in Once and for All, who are aged between 14 and 18.

This is a smartly structured show that celebrates all things teen, spiraling out from the anarchic energy of adolescents to generate a tautly disciplined work of physical theatre. It is, as one girl tells us frankly at the beginning, about the clichés: the rebellion, the boundary pushing, the gauche obscenity. Punctuated by klaxons that recall staged anarchy to scrambled order, 13 teenagers act out all the clichés – childish cruelty, sexual fumbling, self-parody, surly aggression, drug taking, insecurities and fear.

It begins with a bare stage, on which are set 13 chairs, while a wild rumpus is going on in the wings - yells, screams, banging of drums. The teenagers enter, alone or in twos or threes, and indulge in apparently aimless behaviour - two boys flick each other painfully with balloons, girls fall backwards on their chairs, the introverts build a castle out of plastic cups which the rebel kicks over. The alarm starts, the cast frantically tidies up the stage, and they run off. Silence. Then the music begins again and they run on stage and re-enact the whole scene, with tiny variations, and the show begins to get interesting.

Building on structures of repetition and variation, Alexander Devriendt gives this apparent artlessness shape and focus, exploiting the raw energy of his performers to generate a show that does exactly what it claims. It celebrates the nascent possibility that lurks in the young, giving the finger to those who, having repressed their own desires, demonise youth’s restlessness and extremity. Its insistence on raw performance recalls the work of French choreographer Jérôme Bel, without quite reaching his elegant transparency and joyousness. Unlike Bel, its agenda assumes a certain audience attitude (and that the audience consists of adults): that teenagers are a strange and alien species, that adulthood inevitably means repressing the urge to take risks or test boundaries.

In recalling the lostness and disempowerment that can accompany adolescence, the forces that inevitably end up expressed in rebellion, it made me reflect that there are reasons to grow up. There is as much danger, after all, in the unreflective worship of youth as there is in its demonisation: they might indeed be different sides of the same coin. But there are moments that are sheerly exhilarating: this show has irresistible elan, elegance and wit, which makes it an enjoyable ride. Sydneysiders can catch Once and For All at the STC's Wharf 2 from August 14.

Forced Entertainment’s ironically named Spectacular is again an exercise in raw performance. A middle-aged man (Robin Arthur), costumed as a skeleton a in a crudely painted black tracksuit and fencing mask, plays Death as a standup comic. The conceit of the show is that the show isn’t happening: instead Death describes for us the spectacle that is inexplicably absent from the empty stage. Meanwhile another performer, Claire Marshall, stages an extended and noisy death scene in the background.

For about half an hour I was absolutely there, enjoying the frisson between the presence of the performers and the absence of the spectacle described; but then, gentle reader, boredom began to move in. Over the next forty five minutes, it built a house, married and had children, redecorated and added an extension. The meta-theatrical jokes, Arthur's self-deprecating patter and Marshall's melodramatic death throes are the substance of the act; there is no pay-off. It’s a show that undermines itself and has all the answers, and in the end, knowingly, it simply runs out of gas.

Spectacular is hermetically sealed against criticism: its aim is failure, the excavation of expectations about theatre that are then carefully not met. Aside from the theoretical deconstruction of a theatrical experience and the Milliganesque humour that points (in Milligan's case, hilariously) at what is not funny, opening the gap between laughter's expectation and deflation, there's not much really going on. And after a while, you begin to wonder what the point is, especially as we never get close to any emotional apprehension of death. I thought it telling that nowhere was there any evocation of the dead, whom to the living are our experience of death: death remained an abstraction, a "presence", as Arthur says, rather than an absence. (Although, of course, that absence was there by virtue of the absent spectacle: the circles are intellectually impeccable).

I thought again of Jérôme Bel; in particular, of the marvellous sequence in The Show Must Go On, in which dancers slowly collapsed on stage to Roberta Flack singing Killing Me Softly. Bel's representation of death was absurd, yes; but it was also deeply and mysteriously moving. It's possible to do a lot with almost nothing.

I guess the point of Spectacular is that one goes away and wonders what theatre is all about. And maybe (though this is actually dubious) what death is all about. And possibly life. In between, you've had a bit of a chuckle at the absurd artifice that is theatre itself. It prompted the (for me, reactionary) thought that I wanted theatre to be about something. And then I hear the cry: but that's the point, that you are thinking that. And so you wander around in circles muttering, yes, on its terms it's therefore succeeded: but isn't it, after all, a bit of a waste of time? What about, the inner philistine wants to know, actually doing a bit of theatre?

I did ponder whether the pay-off, the actual emotional meaning, is the total blackout that descends at the end, after a little dance of lighting on the empty stage. They follow the best lines in the show: a poem-like meditation repeating the words "lights on, lights off", which Arthur reads from an imaginary comedian's notebook as he slowly departs the stage. But that potentially Beckettian moment wasn't earned; and in any case, some eager audience members started clapping even before the blackout, thus dissipating any possible potency in the transition to darkness.

I felt a bit empty at the end. The fact that this show is clearly made by people who know what they're doing on a stage only intensified the feeling. The putative theme is, after all, death; and it leaves you with the feeling that we're all a bit post-death now, a bit too sophisticated to actually grapple with it, that its representation need mean nothing except a kind of witty in-joke about what we're actually looking at (with, of course, all the negative theology this also summons). It makes it very safe, and vaguely depressing; it expresses the same kind of evasion of risk that infuses Philip Larkin's (yes, beautifully written) poem As Bad as a Mile:

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

I think I prefer my apples bitten. Very Eve of me, I guess. Luckily I went to Sydney the following day and saw Barrie Kosky's Poppea, which reanimated my faith that theatre can actually be about something profound without selling its artistic soul and, maybe more importantly, can be something without compromising its intelligence. Of which more hereafter.

(As a footnote, there will be more hereafter also about the Malthouse production of Knives In Hens, once I find out what the Australian is doing with my review... which further research reveals, for those millions waiting with bated breath, will be in Thursday's paper.)

Pictures: top: Ontreorend Geod's Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen; bottom, Robin Arthur (front) and Claire Marshall in Forced Entertainment's Spectacular.

A shorter version of this review was in yesterday's Australian.

Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are so Shut Up and Listen, by Joeri Smet and Alexander Devriendt, directed by Alexander Devriendt. Ontroerend Goed, Kopergietery and Richard Jordan Productions. Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne. (Closed). Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, August 14-29.

Spectacular, by Tim Etchells, Robin Arthur and the company, directed by Tim Etchells. Design by Richard Lowdon, lighting by Nigel Edwards. With Robin Arthur and Claire Marshall. Forced Entertainment @ Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. Closed.


TimT said...

Then there's the unofficial performances on Errol Street

- 'Hey man, can you spare a bit of change or a ciggy'?, by The Man From The TAB, a brief but convincing piece of theatre. Apparently the actors pioneered a new technique for their performance - 'methodless acting'. Four out of five stars.

- 'Two f*ing dollars? You've got to be f*ing kidding me!', by The Friendly Busker. As a matter of fact, I've never heard the Friendly Busker actually busk. Or be friendly. But he's certainly become an enduring cultural institution on Errol Street. Three out of five stars.

- 'But, like, I'm not sure about those chips. Aren't they, like, bad for the lactose intolerant, or something'? by the Customer at Urban Burger. A tragi-comedy in one act, this hip and happening show is well worth making the trip in to North Melbourne to see. Apparently they've been doing a worldwide tour - across Melbourne. (Some of the same actors starred in the South Melbourne production as they did in the North Melbourne one.) There have been claims, though, that the idea was stolen from a similar Nandos production from a year ago. Last performance occured yesterday - so get in while there still isn't time!

TimT said...

Didn't rate that last one. That's because it's BEYOND ratings. It's THAT GOOD.

(Yes, I work in North Melbourne. I'd encourage anyone who needs to get a show to just catch a train to the city and walk, the walk is pleasant and they can always catch the 57 tram along Elizabeth Street if their legs get tired.)

Anonymous said...

I live in West Melbourne now (an even more obscure suburb than North Melbourne- name its one landmark...) and I've only just worked out the streets. North Melbourne is a mad collision of two grids, Mr Hoddle's and Mr Squiggle's. The Meat Market can be a devil to find from anywhere to the south or west.

Gilligan said...

Hi Alison,
Thanks for the reviews. I had a pretty similar experience with Spectacular. I think the thing that annoyed me most about it was how arrogant it was. It felt really condescending, like they thought they were educating us on how to deconstruct theatre or something. I thought it was extremely pretentious and boring. I feel pretty strongly about theatre being about something more than theatre, and this was a production that could only be appreciated by theatremakers (which i'm pretty sure made up the bulk of the audience).

On a brighter note, I actually feel you have greatly understated the success of Once and for All...

What an incredible show! This was one of the most life affirming, energetic, aggressive, beautiful, funny and truthful pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Certainly the best piece of theatre to be staged in Melbourne this year. What an honest and truthful experience of what it is to be a teenager.

From beggining to end I found this production captivating. I think more than anything it was the contrast between the emotional highs and lows of the piece that made it so beautiful. The anarchy of the opening sequence and the dance scenes compared with individuals speaking directly with the audience openly and honestly about their fears. It all made me want to be 16 again.

For me, this show asked the audience many more questions about theatre than Spectacular did.

How lucky we are to have seen this work. All hail teenagers!

Alison Croggon said...

Heh. Glad to hear you loved Once and For All so much. I was hardly unenthusiastic, although I wouldn't say it was the best theatre I've seen this year. I think I was slightly alienated (only slightly, it hardly ruined the experience) by the assumptions made about the audience - I feel like that about any kind of theatre that assumes things about me (being part of said audience). Hence I found the "hey, shout out loud and say rude words" thing embarrassing, not because of the action itself, but because it assumed that I needed that kind of freedom. But yes, gorgeous in many ways.

The word that occurred to me with Spectacular was "complacent". Also, that the people who would get those kinds of jokes already know all that stuff, so wtf? Etc. Glad I didn't bring my Young People's Focus Group to that one, they would have been scathing.

Gilligan said...

I felt the only assumption they made was that the audience was mostly made up of adults, which was true. In regards to the audience yelling thing, I saw that a bit differently. I thought that it was intentionally ironic. I have very clear memories of being a teenager in high school and having adult performers and speakers force us all into lame audience participation, the assumption being that teenagers are self concious. So I think it was a reversal of that assumption, that adults in an audience are uptight. Again this working with cliche, which they stated at the start. Then again, most cliches are true. But I certainly thought the meaning was in the irony.

I agree with your point on spectacular. To me it had this feeling like they were showing us something we hadn't seen before. I for one have seen this done many times before, as I'm sure you have, and done far better. The black lungs avast comes to mind, in regards to dealing with death and the deconstruction of theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, you're right about the irony (didn't help me, though). It wasn't just that - of course they were working with cliche, but sometimes it was a cliche that determined too much (my experiences of adolescence, both personal and observed, are more complex). I am all for taking young people seriously, since they are human beings - I've never understood that thing about them being an alien species - and I do get angry at the hysterical demonisations of youth culture, and the kinds of brutalisations of feeling that can happen (the recent debacle with Kyle and Jackie O being a particularly nasty example, in all sorts of ways). Doesn't mean I romanticise the young, but they are no more stupid than so-called adults. Just younger, and so more raw. (I do remember, very clearly, what it was like to be patronised.) It was good to see something that just unapologetically celebrated that experience, without attempting to explain or excuse it.

Anonymous said...

Out of interest, what were the "rude words" they wanted you to shout out? I just saw Once and For All in Sydney today, and we had to say "back off" and "fart", which I wouldn't say were, well, "rude" words...

I suppose I'm just curious as to whether they changed it since the run in Melbourne.

The Perf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Perf said...

I had a very similar experience with Spectacular. It was really disappointing, having travelled to Melbourne to see the show and all. After reading the programme, I was really excited, but the show failed to deliver any more insight than the director's note. Not really what I expected from, as you say, some of the leading innovators in contemporary theatre.

- Simon