Forced Entertainment @ Royalty Theatre
6:00pm, Sat 13 Mar 2004
Short Review: An entertaining bit of theatrical stamina – but is it art?
Once upon a time…
Once upon a time there were seven performers from a UK-based ensemble (barefoot, and clad in simple red cloaks & cardboard crowns) that sat at the front of a stage and presented a cut-down version of one of their 24-hour performance pieces. The audience are free to some and go as they please during the 6-hour-long Thousandth Night, which poses no problems to the comprehension of the performance, because it is simply a collection of short stories preceded by the phrase “once upon a time…”.
As one of the performers sees fit to interject, or simply end the current thread, they would call out “Stop”, and start another story with “once upon a time”. (Much) more often than not, their “new” story would contain elements of the previous story – or mix elements of stories from several hours ago; and thus, a very long, winding, often absurd collection of unfinished stories.
As the performers tire, get hungry, or just get pissed off that their story was neutered in its prime, they take their chair and retire to the back of the stage, where they can eat, drink, sleep (!), or disappear to the wings to smoke or otherwise relieve themselves. And the duration of the show is very important – as the performance progresses, the behaviour of the players changes somewhat – story change-overs slow, threads become weightier and more considered, they become noticably irritated with each others interruptions and inclinations – time becomes as important an actor as the humans onstage.
As for subject matter? Movies, plays (we start with King Lear), books, nursery rhymes, fables, physics, the God of Love, axe cannibalism, sex mad kings/plumbers/gorillas/high schools/(etc), mirrors that reflect evil, nose pickers, politics, good/bad thieves, plagues… the list is almost endless. As the night wore on, individual stories would run longer (up to 5 minutes); as some players got their second/third winds (or just had something to say), the rapid-fire changeovers returned… “Once…” followed immediately by “STOP!”
Occasionally, the story would be morbid – a tragic death, a wife discovering her husband was collecting child pornography, a brother & sister becoming sexually intimate, the Twin Towers… and the audience would become deathly quiet, waiting on every word as if it possessed great weight. Unfortunately, when the story started verging on popular distaste, the inevitable “stop” would be heard, and the subject would be avoided. This was a great pity, IMHO, and at odds with the attitude of First Night.
To be honest, I took seven columns of notes during this performance – just tracking threads and the looks & performance of the actors during this piece. And, in the cold light of day on the morning after, I can’t figure out whether I could consider this art or not. Yes, it was certainly entertaining, occasionally confronting; and yes, it was always interesting, if only to watch the reaction of the players during a boring story – would they let their colleague uncomfortably meander? And the final story was beautiful: “Once upon a time there was a mouth that wouldn’t stop talking; ears that wouldn’t stop listening; eyes that wouldn’t stop watching; …”.
But was it art, or was it just adept storytelling?