Given their obsessive interest in entertainment structures, one can but hope Finnish theatre company Oblivia wouldn’t be insulted to hear that watching their Entertainment Island trilogy is kind of like endlessly looping the contagious kitty cat video. While it’s safe to say Oblivia’s work stems from a much bigger investment of thought and time than editing an average lolcat video, the effects are similar: the hypnotic repetition of scarce elements that make out both endeavours, has the capacity to annoy the audience to the point of collective hysteria but also to engrave itself into the brain, until you find yourself waking up four days later, still repeating papier-mache stories in your head.
The way Oblivia approaches performance making offers an unusually good insight into the final outcome. The company claim they start from grand ideas and then work away painstakingly, until the big concepts become tangible – something workable on stage, rather than just in a brain. This long process results in simplified ideas, but also a simplified theatre, made out of so little, it seems like the minimalism is as much of a goal as it is a side-product of the process. Entertainment Island, part of this year’s SPILL, is very much typical of their work.
Claiming to be an exploration of popular culture, Entertainment Island is more of a spartan exercise in removing everything from a pop artefact, until all that remains is a barely identifiable structure. In the first part positive reinforcement and feel good factor manifest themselves in constant encouragements along the lines of ‘Look at you, looking good’ – this is what one of the performers shouts as another one is running around a bare stage; the second installment of the trilogy is a narrative of a day in a papier-mache world, where everything and everyone is made of papier-mache, and in which the cumulative use of the phrase papier-mache comes dangerously close to inducing twitches. While it’s possible to recognise the mechanisms at play here – empty congratulatory mannerisms directed at achievements of almost no scale at all, and stories that offer one flavour, but lots and lots and lots of it, while going on forever – the main prize is to guess which grand concept these mechanisms relate to. It might be pop culture – reality TV and shows from the One Tree Hill batch do spring to mind – and the programme notes indeed confirm entertainment industry and soap operas are under attack here. With no contextualisation however, anyone who might have ignored the performance reading material, could mix up the intense but empty world of an average TV series with the emptiness of a corporate existence. Entertainment Island is so stripped down it leaves itself completely open to interpretation.
The scene the show closes with is a case in point. It almost dares to let the audience in on its subject – as three performers first indulge in various self-harming practices, only to then start accusing each other of perversity. What could be or is perhaps meant to be, an exploration in voyeuristic darkness of less publicly discussed entertaining practices, could just as easily be seen as a diss at the congregation of the less publicly discussed live art practices: what else do you call one person wrapping themselves with rope until they bleed and hanging in such a precarious state from the ceiling, while another person watches?
This ambiguity is a side effect of the clear aesthetic decisions made by Oblivia. Their shows are strapped of literally everything, bar basic lights, performers and one prop – a remote control that makes an entrance for a couple of seconds only. Yet it’s precisely this organic ambiguity that makes Entertainment Island such a difficult, rather than challenging watch. Where pop culture might sometimes be accused of giving everything to its audience on a plate covered in glittery letters spelling out the ‘message’, this performance does the exact opposite – it gives almost nothing, but asks the audience to take what few elements are allowed and make them into a complex deliberation on the state pop leaves our brains in. Unsurprisingly, instead of managing that, it turns into an illustration of the point it’s trying to make, a casual, sweeping accusation that’s deliberately not backed up. In doing that, it peacefully reunites with pop culture, while firmly staying on the cerebral part of the entertainment sector.