Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First
Théâtre de la Bastille
Festival d'Automne, Paris, and touring
Over the last 25 or so years, Tim Etchells, director and co-founder of Forced Entertainment, has striven continuously to refine a concept of theatre that strips away the conventions of representation. Devising through movement-based improvisations, an Etchells variant of Mnouchkine's la creation collectif perhaps, Forced Entertainment developed a form of theatre which found enthusiastic audiences throughout Europe, while the mainstream in the UK remained unreceptive to performances that were becoming increasingly a form of anti-theatre. The metatheatrical Showtime from 1997 explicitly challenged the traditional British theatrical realism, its linear narrative with a beginning, middle and end, its mimetic, slice-of-life illusion.
Since Speak Bitterness (1994), Etchells has been moving further and further away from the erratic movement and iconoclastic sets of the earlier work into a word-based form of performance that pushes the audience even further, challenging it to renounce its passivity and actively become co-creator of the work. The work has increasingly obfuscated the boundaries between reality and fiction. Each performer speaks a single line of text, or, recounts a short anecdote, without any cohesive theme or sequential order from which one can build a narrative. Are these genuine expressions of feelings, personally held beliefs, first-hand experiences; are these actors or have the actors renounced characterisation altogether in favour of presenting themselves? How are we to make sense of these pronouncements? Of course, while humankind struggles to make order out of chaos, sense from the incomprehensible, 'real' life, as it is lived on a daily basis, is not a tidy narrative with a beginning, middle and end; it's a jumble of impressions and emotions and knowledges (yes, in the plural), increasingly disjointed, unreliable and sterile factoids overwhelming us from the media and the internet. Etchells' work often seems more 'real' than 'realism' itself.
Etchells has also extended his range of collaborations, recently creating a scintillating performance for the Kaaitheater with the magnificently original, Brussels-based dancer Fumiyo Ikeda. In Pieces was equally a loosely woven string of one-liners, the only long anecdote was in Japanese, flummoxing audience expectations, but, nonetheless, each pronouncement evoked pungent memories, provoked questions and recollections, in Ikeda and her audiences alike. Last year, Etchells collaborated with the remarkable Belgian children's' company Victoria, the result of which turned out to be a piece as engaging as it was provocative, confronting the audience of grown-ups, mostly parents, with the opinions and impressions of parents and the adult world spoken, in the now familiar Etchells format, directly to the spectators, as a challenge by twenty children ranging from adolescents to the tiniest of munchkins. The performance was included in the programme for the 2008 Festival d'Automne and was staged in the Centre Pompidou.
Etchells, it would seem, has been embraced by the European avant garde in its most visible centres of excellence. This year he is back, in a venue of considerable reputation, if more modest in size, with a text created for American comedian Jim Fletcher. I say it is a text, a collection of phrases, in that Etchells has now pared down the representational aspects of the performance to a bare minimum. Jim Fletcher walks onto a bare stage, a black box, wearing a washed-out, light-blue, sleeveless shirt and jeans. His only prop, an artifact from reality, is a litre bottle of mineral water from which he takes a swig periodically, his only movement during the entire proceedings. Jim Fletcher might be a funny man in a different context, but here is just an average, bland, balding American, devoid even of personality. He stands in the lights, centre-stage and for a short hour speaks a series of unconnected sentences, some sententious, some absurd, some plausible factoids, others ultimately challengeable.
If Jim Fletcher's onstage persona were more interesting, I'd have felt the continuous pull towards engagement, to absorb and make my own sense of his pronouncements, challenge them in my mind, take them home with me to mull over, as I have in the past with Etchells' work. Unfortunately, this immobile persona, with an almost monotone delivery, was so dull I couldn't keep myself interested long enough to allow the text to work on me. Phrases such as 'a square has four sides', 'a window is an opening in the wall of a room made so you can look outside', 'blind people can't see anything', 'water is the same as ice' and 'mist is the same as smoke, but made without fire' leave me cold. Even those sentences that might be food for thought, such as 'torture is a way of hurting people so that they tell you something you want to know', or, 'lions, horses and women are interesting subjects for statues', raise a flicker which is almost instantaneously extinguished by the monotonous tone of voice.
At first, some of the audience were laughing, but the humour was generated by the French translation, projected onto the wall behind the speaker, and, often, appearing before the line was delivered in English, so that the laughter preceded the spoken phrase. In French, as surtitres, the text did seem to allow for a heightened sense of irony, as if it were working as an antagonist to the dull persona onstage. However, the laughter soon faded away and the audience started coughing and wriggling instead. If Jim Fletcher was applauded heartily at the end, it was because remembering disjointed and unconnected phrases and repeating them for a whole hour is quite a feat. No doubt, Etchells and Fletcher have their own links as an aide memoire, but I was personally disappointed to go off to dinner on the rue de la Roquette without my habitual compulsion to discuss the evening's performance. My only real recollection was of a unique moment when he put his hands on his hips, a movement that raised my expectations, and said: 'Sheep are boring animals'. Unfortunately, sometimes comedians are boring too .
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher