World in Pictures
Voiceover: Today's review of Forced Entertainment's new show The World In Pictures is brought to you in the form of a Socratic dialogue.
Socrates: There are no voiceovers in Socratic Dialogues.
Socrates: Ah, I see here come three good but naive young people, eager to learn and debate in this here forum. Hello there NaiveYouthocles, ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo, and ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus, three brothers of the Straw Man family.
Straw Men: Hey Sophocles.
NaiveYouthocles: We have a disagreement, Socrates, and seeing as you are well known for being the Wisest Man Working For Culture Wars, we thought we'd ask you what you thought of it.
Socrates: Go ahead...
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: We went to see the The World In Pictures by Forced Entertainment last night and we've been arguing about it ever since.
Socrates: What did you think?
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: I thought it was excellent - it played with what it meant to sit in a theatre and what it meant to tell or be told a history at one and the same time. It gave its performers an impossible task (performing the history of mankind) and we watched their inevitable failure, thus learning about our relationship to history, the limits of story and of telling, and our need to place ourselves within, even at the centre of the narrative.
NaiveYouthocles: I didn't get it. Some of it was funny though, but I'm not sure what the point was.
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: It was nonsense. It was a lot of messing about to no real end. There was no story, no characters, no development. The costumes were just silly. Crappy fur loincloths for cavemen. Sheets for Romans and Greeks, tacky swords and crowns. They would run around a lot to some pompous overly dramatic music while one woman sort of narrated the history of the world, but missing lots of bits out and everyone (over)acted the things she said. And then they'd stop and look a bit embarassed. And they threw lots of feathers all over the stage. And one of them kept getting naked and making nob jokes all the way threw and getting in the way of what they were trying to do. For no good reason. It made me so angry. Grrrrrr!
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: Exactly! Doesn't it sounds excellent!
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: NO! And I'll tell you what else...
Socrates: ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo, can you tell me why it made you so angry?
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: Well, they were just taking the piss, you know, messing about.
Socrates: Are you saying there was no structure to what they were doing?
Socrates: But surely it followed the structure of the history of mankind. It started with the cavemen and went through the Egyptians, the greeks, and so on up to the present day. Outside of that, it located the whole experience within a prologue epilogue which emphasised how tiny one (your) life is in relation to the whole of mankind. And how banal it can seem. Beyond that there was basically a musical verse chorus verse structure. Each passage of history would culminate in a (silly) dance of some kind (the dance of death for the plague, the dance of hope for the Long Peace) and then everything would stop and the ridiculousness and awkwardness of what had been going on would be laid bare.
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: I suppose. But they didn't tell the story very well. In fact, they didn't even seem to be trying to. They were much more concerned with getting in each others way.
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: But that's the whole point! All the ways they tried to demonstrate the story come from our cliched understanding of the past. One of the earliest scenes is a recreation of a scene from 10 000BC to demonstrate what it was like in caveman time for chrissakes.
Socrates: I think to an extent ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus may be right. Whilst they didn't really tell the story, were they not concerned with the nature of stories themselves? With the way that we always seem to miss out important bits (China, in this case, as one of the performers realises halfway through) or events are transformed into meaningless lists of words, or we don't have time to appreciate properly what's going on ('There's lots of stuff going on in Japan,' we're told at one point, while some knights run around and play with a leaf blower).
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: I suppose, but it still made me really ANGRY!
Socrates: So I see. I guess it's for similar reasons that very respectable looking middle-aged people in suits feel it's acceptable to make sarcastic comments during the performance so that others in the audience would hear them.
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: Actually, yes, that was me.
Socrates: And would you do that during an opera? Even if it was awful.
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: No, I suppose not.
Socrates: Could that be because whilst even a bad opera follows certain conventions of which you approve, in this case, you don't approve of the conventions that Forced Entertainment use?
ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo: No, it's because it doesn't have a structure, it's just messing about, it doesn't tell the story, eh <small voice> yes Socrates, I suppose you're right.
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: In yo face Bombaclaut!
Socrates: Not so fast my feisty young friend.
Socrates: Well... you say that the fact that they consistently fail to tell their story, to get their message accross, is the point. Is that a fair representation of your view?
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: I suppose so.
Socrates: But isn't there a problem with that?
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: Not so far as I can tell. They're saying that you can't ever really get a handle on history. You'll never actually understand it. We can't represent what caveman times were like because we don't know.
Socrates: Well, we don't know everything about it, but we know some things. And do you honestly think they tried to represent those things, or did they set out to prove that you couldn't represent them.
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: The latter, I suppose.
Socrates: So whilst the performance purported to be trying to find some relationship with history, it failed to.
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: It's supposed to fail to. I think they'd want you to think that.
Socrates: Yes, but that's the trouble with dealing with failure, anyone says you've failed, and you say, yes, we were supposed to fail. The problem is here, that the performance has failed to find some relationship to the failure to find a relationship with history. It's failed squared. Honestly, what does it say about history that can't be summed up with the (admittedly true) phrase, 'We can't really know everything about history'.
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: I don't know. What about the way, near the beginning one of the cavemen chased a cavewoman around, and then when we reached the present day, the same performers were chasing each other the other way round. That shows how women's roles have changed.
Socrates: Yes, but that's an intellectual statement, how does the realisation of this in theatrical form add to our understanding?
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: Well, it sort of demonstrates it?
Socrates: Did you need it demonstrating?
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: Not really.
Socrates: Because you already knew it.
Socrates: And was that particular piece of action exciting in itself. Or did it just make you think of things?
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: I suppose it just made me think something I already knew.
Socrates: Well then...
ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus: Are you saying that the show doesn't really actually talk about the things it purports to be talking about? Even on the level that the performers obviously want you to take it?
Socrates: I think you're the one actaully saying that
NaiveYouthocles: But I still don't think I understand all this, o wise Socrates.
Socrates: I am only wise in that I know nothing. And in that I know about avant-garde theatre.
NaiveYouthocles: Er, whatever.
Socrates: How old are you, my son?
Socrates: Ah, I was 17 when I first saw Forced Ent. I was electrified. The show was called Pleasure and it was the first really successful piece of non-narrative theatre I'd seen. It was funny, moving, unnerving and utterly engrossing.
NaiveYouthocles: Maybe you got it because you were really wise, even like, when you were only 17. And maybe I'm not clever enough to get this.
Socrates: Or maybe that show was just better. When you say you didn't get it, what do you mean?
NaiveYouthocles: I dunno, I was bored for quite a lot of it. I guess it didn't really seem to matter what they were doing. I mean, I can kinda see what my brother ForcedEntertainmentApologistulus is saying about what it all means, but at the same time, a lot of it just wasn't very exciting, or interesting. It was, y'know, messy. I mean, I don't have a problem with mess. My bedroom's a mess. But here the mess didn't really help with anything. There were some bits I did like, there were some lovely images - cavemen vacuuming or throwing spears at pictures of horses on a TV, a foppish medieval prince doing air-guitar to T-Rex, the set getting really dark for the Dark Ages, and a sudden mood of very intense sadness descending for no discernable reason, someone getting covered in snow as she tries to explain what happened in Cambodia, but in the end it didn't really add up to very much more than those things. And there were long passages where it was just cocking about.
Socrates: It sounds like you've understood it pretty well.
NaiveYouthocles: You mean there isn't some secret to getting it?
Socrates: No. The thing is, Forced Ent often deal with what it means to tell or hear a story in their work. Their epic durational piece, Can Someone Tell A Story To Unfrighten Me dealt with exactly that area. But there it was about what the stories do to us. Here it is as though they don't have the tools to deal with actual stories that actually happened and actually affected actual people. They can talk about things that don't do those things, but not things that do. And the show is boring about 70% of the time.
NaiveYouthocles: Yeah, my mate heckled at the beginning because one of them was taking ages to tell a story.
Socrates: Yes, that moment was really exciting wasn't it? It was as though they were daring us to do that, and when someone did and he acknowledged it, it was electric. But I think being deliberately banal and taking ages to get to your point is actually a game the performer was playing with the audience. It isn't the same as the actual boring bits though is it?
NaiveYouthocles: No, they were bits where it wasn't very clear what was happening beyond them all running around with very little sense of being on stage together.
Socrates: So all in all it was mediocre. But it's important to note that it wasn't really any worse than any of the dross that people like ForcesofTheatricalConservatismo will happily sit through without feeling they have the right to be appallingly rude in the theatre. This kind of work is valid and important, but that means it's important that it's done better than this.
NaiveYouthocles: I think maybe the company know that. They didn't look very happy during the curtain call.
Socrates: Perhaps... Are you all happy now?
All: Yes, thank you O wise Socrates, you have shown us the truth about Forced Entertainment's new show. Truly you are the Wisest Man on all of Culture Wars.
The World in Pictures is at the Riverside till 18 November 2006. Socrates cannot be contacted via Culture Wars.