I walk through the empty Barbican Centre. It feels like an act of transgression. The security guards nod at me though and ask if I’m here for “the thing downstairs”. “Yes” I reply “the long one”. In the lift on the way down, I briefly attempt to explain what I think Quizoola is going to be. They look bemused. “Well enjoy it”, one of them says. I have the distinct impression he thinks I’m certifiable. I am handed a piece of paper by one of the ushers, explaining what to do if I need to leave the building between the hours of 12.20 and 8 am, when the foyers are closed. I am given a blindfold with “Quizoola” printed on it. Seated at a desk wearing clown make-up and looking glum, Claire Marshall hands me a raffle ticket. I take a seat in the corner of the room. It’s the set from the Salon Project with a garish neon sign reading “Quizoola” with the letters nailed to a couple of pieces of wood. It’s at that border between the naff and the ironically naff. Tim Etchells and Cathy Naden are also in clown make-up and Tim is questioning Cathy.
The improvised answers to the questions they ask each other are frequently silly but shift into darker territory in a way that those who are familiar with the company’s work will recognise straight away. When the questions are bunched up together, it starts to resemble to list-based shows that Etchells has made so often for both this company and in his own solo work. The fact that this performance has so few fixed points though and can be taken in all kinds of directions makes it feel more organic and more dangerous than much of Etchell and Forced Entertainment’s recent work.
The shared history of the six artists who make up Forced Entertainment is also one of the great pleasures of their shows and this is the most revealing example of those relationships. Rather than seeing the somewhat fluid result of a lengthy devised process, the improvisation involved in performing Quizoola means that the separation between character and performer is at a minimum. Occasionally, Tim will ask a question and Cathy won’t respond straight away but she will give a look that speaks volumes. When asked if she has ever betrayed anyone, there’s a lengthy uncomfortable silence, a half-smile from her as she seems to be working out how far he’ll push this. The conceit is though that if the questioner receives a respond that they think is a lie or an evasion, they can ask the question again. He asks again, feigning frustration, almost aggressive. As they eye one another up, they are choosing their tactics and we are choosing what to believe. It is then these spaces between questions and answers and between truth and lies that the show really comes to life.
I’ve come home to get some sleep. Before I left, there were a number of people asleep at the Barbican: a few in the Green Room but most in the auditorium. I realised that I was drifting in and out of consciousness. One person in particular had started to snore close to the front row, prompting Richard Lowden to meditate playfully on the benefits of performing in front of snoring audiences in developing confidence as a performer. The repetitions in the questions have started to pay dividends too as they receive different responses taking the interrogator on new lines of questioning. The exhaustion felt by the performers is also becoming apparent (though they are working in shifts) as they get words on the page confused and can’t think of answers. It is perhaps unsurprising given their enormous experience that they remain good-humoured in these moments and find ways to make a virtue of things going wrong, riffing on new-found themes but that doesn’t detract from quite how impressive it is.
Back in the Barbican’s Green Room with a slightly jerky live feed of the performance on a TV monitor on the wall. Returning here, the centre felt returned to its normal bustling self but entering the Pit Theatre, very little had changed. The performers had shifted from when I left in the morning and I only saw a few familiar faces from last night’s audience but the configuration of seating, the lighting and, more importantly, what’s happening on stage all remain the same: “Are you good with money? Have you ever betrayed your country? Have you ever betrayed your parents?” The answers keep changing and this further stimulates my curiosity about the layers of truth and deception in the show. Are the first answers given more likely to be truthful than the later ones? Are the performers starting with the truth and then resorting to lies to keep things interesting or are they beginning with fictions and then telling us the truth once the energy to fictionalise has been exhausted? The questions are often leading and open up specific fictional narratives and personas that the performers can slip into. Tim asks at one point, for example, “How were the patients through the night?” There’s a constant fluidity between the performers identities and the fictions they begin to create by misleading us. These become more solid as the interrogator encourages them to pursue a specific fiction by continuing down a particular line of inquiry.
Leading on from a question about people taking photos of their food and putting it on the internet, Richard has been pretending to pitch an app that geotags photos you take of your shit. Robin takes his place and ends up describing the computer game Baldur’s Gate 2 and the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel August 1914, in degrees of detail that don’t fully satisfy Tim. Swapping roles of questioner, Robin plays devil’s advocate to Tim’s apparently throwaway remark that we don’t live in a true democracy. The tunnelling of the questions is childlike in its relentlessness. A role that is made up entirely of asking questions necessarily adopts the aspect of the outsider: a child, an alien or a “fool” being deliberately provocative. The clown make-up all the performers wear suggests that there’s most mileage in the final interpretation. Like Shakespeare’s fools, the questioners follow lines of either logic or language (rarely both at the same time). The questions are frequently satirical because they look at our world askew, inhabiting the territory that can only be accessed by the jester or the fool. At the end of a series of questions about “experimenting with your child’s upbringing” Robin asks with what appears to be total sincerity: “Why can’t you do what you want with your children?”
Hearing the same questions come back round multiple times is having a strange effect on my brain now. One that stood out precisely because it was eccentric and stand alone was: “It is estimated that the market for line-free bifocal lenses will increase. True or false?” I can’t remember when I’ve heard it before but I know it’s been within the last 24 hours and I know it’s been asked in the same place by some of the same people, so there’s something ghostly about it. Watching Quizoola over this time period is an exhausting but fascinating series of connections between ideas and moments. Everything I’ve heard and seen has created an expansive linguistic, intellectual and thematic web that I am constantly aware of: sometimes dreamily, sometimes concretely. Like a good novel, Quizoola envelops you. Despite the lo-fi presentation, it creates a world through performance and language that haunts you as completely as any example of environmental storytelling, often much more so.
Are you telling the truth?
Are you ready to stop?
And it ends. By this stage I have been defeated and am watching it on the live feed from the comfort of my bedroom. I left the Barbican at around ten o’clock. Soon afterwards, the performers started celebrating reaching the last couple of hours by cracking open cold beers. The Pit theatre was littered with the collected debris of the past night and day: coffee cups, crisp packets, smuggled in cans of cider, etc. Reflecting back on the last 24 hours, I fully appreciate now the impossibility of the endeavour. For the performers, it’s formidable of course. The stretch that they are on stage for is gruelling, intense and hugely demanding.
As an audience member though, the very idea of a 24 hour performance has certain implications for how you’re going to experience the event. There are simple physical limitations. It’s very, very difficult to stay awake for 24 hours and the chances are that, if you begin watching at midnight, you’ve already been awake for 16 or 17 so you’re exhausted from the start really. Even those who attempted to stay in the auditorium for a really long time ended up falling asleep, so the basic assumptions behind a standard theatre experience (that you will be present and conscious throughout it) go out of the window. Your experience of it cannot be complete therefore. It’s always going to be fragmentary and there will be parts that others will tell you about that you’ll have missed. The fact that the whole thing was being streamed live meant that I could watch it from other parts of the building when I wanted a break from the auditorium. It meant that the performance remained with me even if I had to increase my distance from it. It also meant that many other people were watching it around the world who weren’t present in that auditorium. These people were able to dip into it, to fit it around their day, whereas I was fitting my weekend around it. It meant that people could engage with the performance at many different levels and this felt a very contemporary way to experience live theatre.
Of course, having said this, it was a privilege to be in the actual auditorium feeling the atmosphere shifting with tiredness, with mood and the performers responding to that. The improvisation format generates its own in-jokes after a while, referring back to earlier moments and these have a lot to do with how the audience responds to them. The audience are a huge part of the process and what Quizoola does is to keep us as engaged as we are able to be. Terry sums the feeling of the room up brilliantly when it’s her turn to answer the question “Where would you most like to be in the world right now?”:
“In a room full of people thinking.”
Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola took place at the Barbican from 12th to 13th April 2013.