Reviews Germany Published 12 May 2017

Review: Real Magic at Theatertreffen 2017

9 - 11 May 2017

Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum: Lee Anderson review Forced Entertainment’s performance at Theatertreffen 2017.

Lee Anderson
Forced Entertainment's Real Magic at Theatertreffen.

Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic at Theatertreffen.

If Samuel Beckett had made Shooting Stars, it would probably look something like Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic. Tim Etchells has taken the trappings of the television gameshow format, sandblasted it down to its core elements, thrown in a few silly costumes, and created an endlessly looping ritual of wrong answers. It is by turns compelling, bizarre and infuriating: a performance that calls out for interpretation while avoiding it entirely.

As is the case with much of Forced Entertainment’s work, Real Magic’s cumulative power resides in its ability to bend a deceptively simple formula to near breaking point. Despite only running for a modest eighty-minutes in length, the cycling repetition of its form means that the performance stretches and contracts time while testing the boundaries of the audience’s patience in the process. As we take our seats, we are presented with a stage that consists of a small strip of green turf, a microphone and a chair. Along the outer edge of the playing space, there are eight mounted rods of light and a few pieces of card with random words scrawled across them on the ground. The company’s three performers – Richard Lowdon, Jerry Killick and Claire Marshall – enter the stage and begin swapping between the roles of contestants and gameshow host as they each try (and invariably fail) to answer the same question.  The ‘rules’ of the game are typically ludicrous and self-defeating: essentially, the game-show host instructs one of the participants to think of a word and the other contestant is given three chances to guess the correct answer. Bursts of canned laughter and taped applause interrupt the performance, the sounds of a ticking clock are introduced then discarded, and the participants occasionally dance about in bright yellow chicken costumes. Rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

If this all sounds rather arch, well, you’d be right  – except it succeeds for the most part by also being very funny. It’s not a million miles away from the kind of routine that stand-up comedians like Stewart Lee have been perfecting for years already, with its commitment to repetition as a comic tool for alienating an audience in order to win them back again later. It’s a performance that takes enjoyment from toying with our efforts to make meaning from its disparate elements. It’s as if Tim Etchells is daring us to try and join-the-dots, only to then taunt us with the playful hollowness of their entire endeavour and our foolish efforts to endow it with significance. On the other hand, it’s reasonable enough to come away from Real Magic and chalk it up as a perfectly serviceable satire on the vapid distractions of televisual entertainment. It reminded me at various points of David Lynch’s Rabbits, which did a remarkably similar thing to the conventions of the American sitcom and also used canned laughter in the same way. I think that’s a valid reading. But something about it feels too pat. Too neat. Surely, there’s something else going on here.

The struggle to grasp the sense of the thing means we often find ourselves trying to weave the words into some sort of comprehensible pattern. Because the contestants never stray from their choice words of ‘Electricity’, ‘Hole’, ‘Money’ , ‘Caravan’, ‘Sausage’ and ‘Algebra’, we can’t help but question their relevance. So we reorder them into sentences, assembling new phrases from their letters, and perhaps hoping that by doing so we’ll stumble across some hidden significance. But the harder we try to ascribe meaning, the more it eludes us.

As we watch these unbroken cycles unfold in progressively frenzied rhythms, a palpable tension comes into play. We know the answer is always the same. We know the ‘rules’ reduce the whole endeavour to an impossible task. What’s more, we know the ‘game’ itself is little more than a cheap magic trick: a closed system with its own strange and self-perpetuating internal logic that we’re barred from interfering with. Yet, despite all this, we can’t let go of the desire to change it in somehow through sheer force of will alone. We find ourselves hoping that the loop will unravel or that the system will break down. We project our thoughts from the stalls and try in vein to beam the correct answer through some forced psychic communion with the minds of the hapless contestants on stage. As these repetitious rituals increase in speed and tempo, the rhythms and behaviors of the performers become desperate to the point of physical exhaustion. Sweat pours off their bodies. Their bodies begin to vibrate.  The game-show host veers from affability to bullying and back again with each passing loop, while the contestants shift back and forth from despondency to excitement.

Real Magic dramatises our inability to change systems of power. In the place of transformation and forward progression, we’re subjected to the illusion of change through endless reinventions of the same power dynamic. Though the performers swap roles, they are unable to break loose from the question-and-answer, winner-and-loser hierarchy that governs their relationship to each other. The contestants never disobey the instructions of the game-show host, and the host too is unable to progress through the unending loop of wrong answers. Except in this system, everybody’s a loser. Perhaps this is the meaning of Real Magic, after all. As long as things stay as they are, there can be no winners. Only failures and wrong answers. The cycle continues.

For more information on Real Magic, click here


Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

Review: Real Magic at Theatertreffen 2017 Show Info

Produced by Forced Entertainment

Directed by Tim Etchells

Written by Created with input from: Robin Arthur, Cathy Naden

Cast includes Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall



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