Daniel B Yates: So this is part of our LIFT coverage, and with that allow me open up with a broad generic positioning on our allotted topic of “form”, which I fully expect us (me) to wander from (quite a lot). So while always presenting as theatre – “theatre as space” – FE have blurred the site of construction for a generation. Like a skin-shedding Pompidou Centre the innards of rehearsal overlay the final product; they fetishise their workings and work the spaces between theatre and metatheatre, and the entropy and the alchemy of that kind of transversal.
Laura Jane Dean: Forced Entertainment are the masters of ‘play’. It has been well documented that their process of making a show always starts with a rehearsal room filled with stuff (costume, props etc.) and they start playing, making up rules and see what happens. In The Coming Storm we see all the familiar stage decoration and debris, clothes rails filled with dresses, fur coats, a dinosaur suit, chairs, masks, bottles of water and beer , wigs, make-up, a microphone, although with the addition of musical instruments for the first time. Everything is a fragment, the constant juxtapositioning of a tale, a dance, a memory, a musical interlude, nothing really gets started, or finished.
The playing, the subversion of theatrical and dramatic conventions, the deconstruction of “a good story” are the crucial elements in the equation of ‘what makes a good Forced Entertainment show’, (and the foundations on which so much contemporary performance is based on) but what if these structures are present, or attempting to be present, without reason. Is it form for form’s sake? For me, much of The Coming Storm felt empty of meaning. An uphill struggle, for the performers in conveying purpose through weak and unmemorable stories and for the audience, in being able to answer the question, “Why?”. Claire Marshall, having changed into a different dress for the fourth time, said it herself, “This doesn’t matter”.
Are their tales tired? Are they tired? Are we tired of watching them compete with each other, trying to tell their tales of the dark, humorous or simply ordinary? After almost thirty years of making work and defining a genre through style and form is it possible to create something that feels completely fresh, original and necessary? Cathy Naden shouts out “We said there wasn’t going to be any sentimental shit! We said no nostalgia” yet The Coming Storm feels like a compilation of everything we have seen them do before, except this time with drums.
DBY: Yes, okay, in a harsh light, in some way it felt like a group therapy session that had gone on too long, and everybody had become muted and risk-averse. Yet perhaps that chimed with the insistent note of assurance, which always trumpeted over the notes of reveal and disclosure, and lent the piece this extraordinary depthlessness, before finally serving rather well the sort of nihilistic melancholy that The Coming Storm trod alongside the not-inconsiderable volumes of formal water.
Because it was a strangely muted tone. Unfeeling and almost mechanical in the absence of profound reflection. It was in the banality of the stories that were always interrupted (a banality which, uncharacteristically failed at failure) the hardening of their poetics which seemed to dull the sweetness and pathos of the story untold, and perhaps in what was some kind of acquiescence to its own deconstructive tendencies as an inevitable orthodoxy, without being a full enough acquiescence – in which we’d get another dazzling FE show – or attendantly partial enough – in which we’d get different shapes and firmer shifts toward new territory.
So when the anger arrives in the moment you mention, where Naden flecks spittle across the piece’s failure and the company’s, as much as it becomes a theatrical warning against reminiscence and nostalgia, it stakes out the business-as-usual while pre-empting of the possibility of its own unfashionableness. And certainly some of the postmodern tics looked tired, the references to celebrity casting (Demi Moore, Elizabeth Taylor) fell particularly flat in a intertextually slapdash whole. The grey areas, between being in-and-out of character, did not feel their own cleverness and lacked pathos and punch. I was reminded of External at Soho Theatre last year, who copped FE with a freshness and verve that seemed far from this wintry affair.
So yes, it felt a little bit like that difficult 47th album. And they felt a bit like rockstars ploughing a fallow patch. Yet the introduction of the live band element, each cast-member swapping between guitar base and drums to deliver droney post-rock, I kinda loved as a solid and effortless transmutation of their cool, and an aesthetic shift, in the absence of video, internet and attendant media, toward a credible kind of earthy authenticity.
And the sonic dimension gave a free-er more tonal way to their kind of populated object theatre, in which the narrative and meaning are prey to the interpolating effects of props, in tandem with the human competition and interruption and diversity of styles that constituted the delivery of the words, while finally not quite creating the tight and beguiling problematisation of storytelling it sought as they wheeled around in that sort of limpid way.
And this led more down the route of a European avant-garde cabaret, with the dismembered piano and that nod to Bunuel, which is interesting for a company who have cultivated such a distinctive British strain of anti-theatrical modernism. And I thought a lot of this worked, conjuring fragmentary scenes with that laconic clipped sense of movement, and those verbal bursts. I especially liked the use of those collection of spare Giacometti-ish stripling branches to create dark forests, and the seclusions and exclusions that FE create (such a strong grasp of the routes from periphery to centre, and in these instances it’s clear that form, for FE, is derived from group function) were as ever succinct and powerful. It’s not a classic, it’s in many ways quite conservative, but perhaps in those fault-finder acknowledgements of its own systemic limitations we get the hope that the storm, when it arrives, is going to be an exciting thing to be caught up in.
LJD: I think you’re point about “failing at failure” is an important one. Having studied contemporary performance and now a practitioner myself, Forced Entertainment’s work was a crucial and unavoidable part of that education in learning how to make work that is, as you say “anti-theatre”. You learn how to ‘play’, make rules, borrow stories, make things up, work with and against each other, address the audience, start from a pile of stuff, you constantly ask questions of yourself and the audience but more than anything you make work that balances on the edge of success and failure. You embrace failure, sometimes it happens intentionally, sometimes uncontrollably. In the past I have seen FE fail beautifully and spectacularly in the telling of their stories but in The Coming Storm, as they fail, it falls flat, on purpose but without purpose. I wonder if they have become a little complacent, perhaps a kind of “well, we know this works so let’s just keep doing this because this is what we’re good at”.
This is where we see emerging companies such as Get in the Back of the Van (who produced External) and Made in China (at BAC this year) using accepted conventions of contemporary performance that were so firmly established by FE but in a fresh and exciting way. They have new ideas, different things to say which brings a ‘feistiness’ to their work. There was an air of freshness in The Coming Storm with the musical score, which felt quite ‘Little Bulb’ and the drum and bass beat certainly served to lift the piece from being purely drab. I’m sure Forced Entertainment have got stuff to say, I just wish they would push themselves out of their comfort zone, shout a bit more, and strive to make us all feel more.