Forced Entertainment’s ‘Exquisite Pain’ occupies a bare set – two tables, two chairs, two television sets, and two actors, who remain seated throughout the performance. The actors, one woman and one man, take it in turns to tell a story. The woman starts, with details of the end of her love affair, and the man follows. The woman’s story is always the same, though she breathes in and bleeds out details depending on her changing reactions to the events, but the man channels other people’s stories. He inhabits the memories of an orphaned child, a bereft mother, a young man facing conscription. In this way, the form of the piece is quickly established: alternation, repetition, alternation, repetition. And the enjoyment that comes from the next two hours (with no interval) in a packed Soho Theatre comes from the minute developments in each story, and the heartfelt pathos of the stories themselves.
But then, I knew what to expect. Unlike most of the audience, I have read the book by Sophie Calle from which Forced Entertainment’s dialogue is lifted almost verbatim. Sitting in the crowded theatre, I know that the woman’s story will be repeated 99 times, and that her retellings will become more factual and anecdotal as the accompanying stories became more intimate and evocative. Crucially, I also know the reason for all this repetition. Calle, the woman who suffered the heartbreak, decided to tell people how she felt and ask them to describe a similar anguish, ‘until I had got over my pain by comparing it to other people’s, or had worn out my story through sheer repetition.’
I don’t remember this being made clear in Forced Entertainment’s production, and so the act of sitting through it becomes one of endurance. Like Calle herself, it is impossible to know when the experience will end, although it’s fascinating to observe the nuances in how it’s retold – sometimes in painful detail; sometimes in stark fact, like the setting for a play. In each reiteration of the same events, the woman reveals a little more about her relationships, her personality, how she is coping. And in each new notification from an unnamed stranger, we are briefly privy to a cast of other characters, a whole world of other possibilities.
But without the context provided in the book, the performance on stage seems to lack development or direction. The 99 comparisons of pain make up a small part of Calle’s book, cushioned with autobiography, personal photographs, love letters and enough back-story to at least partially excuse her indulgence. Here, conveyed without this context and in a plain, conversational style the stories seem both selfish (on the woman’s part) and distanced (on the man’s). Although Forced Entertainment echo the simplicity of the book’s layout in the simple set, there is no performative equivalent for the preciousness of the intricately designed publication, or the visual clues like, for example, the fading text as Calle’s pain wanes. That’s not to say the performance should reproduce the book in theatrical form, but that something important is lost in the transition from highly personal fetish-object to unauthored, uncalibrated script.
On stage, it’s still tantalising to hear the details of other people’s stories – their most intimate, revealing secrets exposed in a few simple lines. But without the autobiographical context, it’s easy to focus on what makes these stories distant – they all take place in
Judging by the fidgeting and shuffling of the people around me, I wasn’t the only one. Forced Entertainment’s characteristically conversational tone falls flat in the presence of such a heavily authored text. In other productions, this approach displays the potency of language – sneaking up on you behind the façade of an everyday conversation. But here the facelessness of the delivery devalues the carefully chosen words. Both reading from scripts, the actors dissolve the artifice that these are their thoughts, their feelings, and I feel an overwhelming desire to be left alone with the just the language itself.
Perhaps I’ve been sullied by knowledge of the book – reading and watching are very different experiences, and neither ensures quality. The rhythm maintained by the production on stage certainly makes the anguish of pain feel keener – and it makes the relief when it goes more tangible. As the performance eventually comes to a close, the audience sigh audibly and head to the toilet.