20-25 April 2009
The last few audience members are squeezed onto the benches of Soho Theatre studio. It is warm and stuffy, but a buzz of anticipation permeates the thick air above the steeply raked auditorium. A Forced Entertainment performance is about to start: I am expecting that once the steward has ripped my ticket and I have chosen my place and I have sat down and I have taken off my coat and placed my bag under the seat, once the houselights have (maybe) gone down (or at least dimmed a little bit) and once the performers are on stage and the audience quietens… I am expecting that theatrical conventions will be challenged, form will be played with, and that this performance will stimulate some thoughts about my – our – relationship to what’s going on down there below. And maybe more.
The rules of Void Story are clear soon after the performers have entered and taken their seats. As Mary Paterson describes, the four of them are tools, props, components in the telling of this story. They perform the function of sound: the voices of the protagonists, Kim and Jackson, are spoken into microphones by two performers at individual desks on one side of the stage, a lamp and a script next to each of their mics. Effects are created live or triggered from a soundboard on the long desk behind which the other two sit, on the opposite side of the stage. They speak the voices of subsidiary characters into more microphones, adjusting settings on two Mac laptops. A screen fills the gap behind the two pairs, onto which high contrast monochrome collages are projected; rough cut-and-paste snapshots of a desolate and threatening landscape through which a man and woman journey – the image version of Jackson and Kim – posed photos of two new faces, not the performers speaking in front of us. It’s all laid out for us to see, production methods stripped bare, each dislocated ingredient needing our imagination, our effort, our presence, to come together into a whole. The performance is two dimensional and we are the third dimension.
It will continue like this. A string of terrible events are inflicted on Kim and Jackson by the narrative, but they carry on across this harsh landscape, with no grand purpose and no final destination. They receive a visitor, who shoots Kim in the stomach. They receive intrusive phonecalls. They are stung by bees, they swim through shit, they climb over a tower of decomposing waste. They are chased by an open-jawed bear and a pack of angry dogs. We carry on filling in the grim void, just as Jackson, eyes closed, led by Kim, can still imagine the human entrails scattered along their path, at which Kim recoils.
Despite the horrible content of the narrative, this framing of catastrophe seems safe – everything is settled from early on – the concept is there, so we just need to apply our imaginative glue and join Kim and Jackson for ‘a rollercoaster ride through the decimated remains of contemporary culture’, as Tim Etchells’ programme note suggests. The violence and misfortunes that the characters suffer bring to mind a horror or disaster film, their ability to brush themselves off and continue after deadly injuries, a cartoon. No-one will really get hurt here, the good guys will survive till the end - it’s all just a bit of light entertainment, right? It’s not real.
But the general effect is far from calming. The sound is almost unbearably loud: at times I feel like I am being pinned to the back of my seat by the force of it. In imagining all these nasty events, and in battling against the volume of noise, and in the heat of the space, this experience is often uncomfortably challenging. It doesn’t allow the quick fix spectacular escapism on offer in Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow. Maybe it comes closer to the gritty warning of Children of Men, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
But it is still safe, it is darkly comic. It is apparent that this formula will not change and the narrative will reach no climax… rather we will continue uneasily trawling along a desperate grey plateau with its protagonists. After a while they encounter a sinister child on a bleak estate and she asks for some help with her balloon, it is stuck in a nearby tree. No-one else can help as they sleep during the day and work at night: “Our schedules don’t overlap much.” Kim and Jackson deliberate over whether –
There is whispering in the row behind me.
A young woman is slumped on the shoulder of the woman next to her, eyes shut, the people around are fanning her face.
She has probably fainted. Turn back to the stage
– Jackson is high up in the tree, “Jackson, be careful”. The balloon is shot by a –
but the whispering gets louder,
a man stands by the young woman. “Can you hear me? I’m a first aid officer. Can you hear me?”
To the panicked woman at the girl’s side: “Was she with anyone?”
“I’m her mother.”
Her name is repeated several times. “I’m the first aid officer, can you hear me?
…Has she eaten anything today?”
Glance back at the screen for a second – Jackson and the sinister girl and Kim are on the move, they are – then back up to the woman. Someone comes down from the back bench onto the stage, it is Tim Etchells. The performers’ voices halt, the houselights are brought up. “I’m very sorry, but we’re going to have to stop the show. There’s a medical problem.” He looks up at the young woman.
Everyone turns and looks.
A steward: “Is there anyone with any medical experience here? Is there a doctor in the house tonight?”
No response. Someone says, “She needs to be put in the recovery position.”
Everyone continues to look at the young woman and her mother in the middle of the seating bank. Her skin is grey.
The first aid officer calls an ambulance: “yes, she’s breathing but she’s not conscious.”
No-one does anything.
This moment lasts a long time.
A steward asks us to all to take a break outside the studio. We slowly filter out, dazed. We wait.
I think: So, is Void Story a disaster performance? It has presented us with a post-apocalyptic landscape, but the usual constraints of realism don’t apply. With a dream-like logic the protagonists have reacted to each crisis without ever considering the bigger picture (without the ‘sop of psychology’ as Tim Etchells writes): just like this show’s detailed attention to each individual component, and its intentional neglect of a complete, finished end product. We have been presented with a flat pack performance.
We’re thanked for our patience, and told the show will continue.
I think: The performance has so far been deliberately out of sync with itself. Aside from the incongruities between aural and visual representation, and the strangely narrow outlook of the protagonists, the images have had warped perspectives within themselves because they are haphazardly thrown together from the elements of other compositions.
We’re told that the paramedics have arrived, that the performance will be started as soon as possible.
I think: The performers’ style has been brilliantly underplayed and deadpan, always ensuring we’ve been aware that they are “just acting”, just reading from the script, just doing their job. They have been playing at being these characters, reminiscent of children doing the voices of their toys, or parents reading out picturebook speech bubbles to pacify at bedtime.
We are told that the young woman is looking a lot better now that she has received some medical attention, and that the show will be restarting soon.
We filter back into the studio, staring at the ominous empty space where the girl and her mother were.
Tim Etchells thanks us all for waiting, and tells us that the young woman is fine now and has been taken home. They’re going to rewind a bit:
– “Help me!” cries the sinister girl on the bleak estate. “Please help me!”, words spoken into a microphone that stretches Terry O’Connor’s voice into a high-pitched squeal. Jackson says, “This is one of those dilemmas that really tests one’s strength of character.” The audience laughs. “Do you run or do you help?” More laughter. “I’d say run…”
The performance continues through to the abrupt unconcluded end that sees Kim and Jackson in a final moment of inaction. But that scary intermission has changed the nature of the experience. Our expectations are blasted and nothing feels quite so safe anymore, now that we’ve been reminded that anything is possible, that unexpected eventualities can occur anytime, anywhere. And also it feels doubly safe, because nothing else unplanned will happen now, the chances of two emergencies in one show are very slim. Something shocking and demanding and real intruded into the set rules of representation, and we didn’t know how to respond. The light responsibility of creating a piece of theatre together immediately switched to the shared weighty onus of how to handle this unforeseen occurrence.
The spectacle of this episode was defined by our inaction – by our handling of it as something to be observed rather than acted upon – just as the final image of the performance shows Kim and Jackson giving up on reacting and trying out just doing nothing. Whilst we knew clearly how to play the game that the show proposed, this situation was uncertain, unguided, unknown. There were some attempts towards protocol, but it was clear to all that the possible directions were out of our remit, we couldn’t control them, and so we did nothing. We were helpless and redundant. Having re-entered, there is now a new definition of ‘uneasy’ attached to this space, and the loudness and disjunction of the performance have become comforting solid certainties. We watch the rest of the show, happy to be able to achieve something together, something that elegantly falls within the realms of our comfort zone, stretching us only as far as we choose to go. It’s in our hands again now.