The Coming Storm starts on solid ground, with the sort of list that Forced Entertainment can keep up for the best part of a year. Terri O’Connor churns through all the various things – from beginnings, middles and endings to twists and turns and tribes in conflict – needed for a good story.
Of course, this being Forced Entertainment, they then proceed to break those rules. It’s an old technique of theirs: set the bar, take a run up and hurtle into it, breaking the bar in the process. What makes The Coming Storm quite so clever is that it goes a level further. We know with Forced Entertainment that we ought to keep an eye on the story of the show itself, the path of that breakdown. The Coming Storm refuses even to break with a satisfactory dramaturgy. Even the story of the show itself is a meandering and confused narrative, that staggers step by step like a concussed drunkard until eventually it just finds a place to stop.
That takes a while to emerge and for quite a while I rather hated The Coming Storm. It looked like a classic case of their characteristic chaos and sabotage masquerading as failure. It all felt rather contrived and not a little tired. By the end, I rather fell in love with it. In fact, I’d argue that, though it’s a slow-burner, it’s destined to become one of their more seminal pieces, precisely because it attacks the neatness of their previous attacks on theatrical convention.
After that first prescriptive list, they immediately set about telling stories that don’t conform. Absurdly implausible stories about IT specialists, Somali pirates and dragon battles. Banal stories about the standard working days of branch librarians. Hackneyed stories, distracted tangential stories, stories that qualify every detail, stories that can’t get going and so on. As each narrative breaks down, another performer grabs the microphone with a sarky or half-hearted ‘Thanks’ and starts another of their own.
And, of course, we all get it. Many of the audience studied Forced Entertainment at university. We know about And on the Thousandth Night and Void Story. We understand the company’s mistrust of narrative and linearity. We get the humour and we laugh a little too loudly and knowingly. So far, so Forced Entz. (Hell, we even call them by a loving nickname. We’re all friends here.)
As these stories – the who, what, where, why of which is pretty much arbitrary – other performers draw the attention away. They start to set things up and put on bits of costume: the usual shoddy wigs and crumpled masks. Someone starts to play a drumbeat. It looks like a standard case of the company’s one-upmanship, of undermining what ought to be central and so ‘breaking’ the theatrical event.
Actually, though, it leaves the conventions just intact enough to survive, so that various elements – words, music, costume, actions – start to chime with one another and entwine. Stories attach themselves to things onstage. They gain atmosphere from the music. Characters seem to be embodied. Our mind makes connections and assume significance, reading the one in terms of other. Labels start to stick, so that a bare-chested man in a Freddie Kruger mask could be the killer, a woman shimmying in a gold dress a seaside showgirl and so one.
Yet, as the story switches those same beats and ‘characters’ stick around. One story’s killer now seems another’s love-interest. A sentimental piano score is underpinning a chase sequence.
There’s no denying the skill and delicacy with which all this is achieved: a tiny turn of the head can ‘accidentally’ attract a label, a certain arrangement of two bickering performers makes them suddenly lovers and so on. In fact, the effect has parallels with the techniques in Gatz, where labels can attach themselves to a seemingly inappropriate signifier due to some shared quality.
Stories, sights and sound slip out of sync, like a one-armed bandit coming up lemon, bell, pistols and still paying out. Robin Arthur, by now dressed in a black flame-edged shirt and a boyish blonde wig, having assumed this character named Killer, keeps stopping the speaker mid-flow, asking to be included in the story somehow.
Where Void Story broke its story’s back by pumping it so full of plot that it bloated and burst, The Coming Storm overloads itself with signification until the bronco bucks. It looks to attack the ways we tell stories; their reliance on familiar tropes and singularity, whereby villains are one thing and lovers another; but also the coerciveness of narrative neatness, momentum and satisfaction, the way the story starts to dictate its own terms.
Every now and then Cathy pops up and asks the speaker, so that we might better visualise the story, which Hollywood actor might play each role. At one point Richard Lowdon’s critically-ill mother, who looks like (and therefore somehow is) a pirate, is also Elizabeth Taylor and Brad Pitt his friend, so they end up at Brad Pitt’s house. Stories distort themselves into lies, you realise, and ultimately confuse where they’re supposed to carry ideas. In fact, you might even ask why stories exist and why we don’t merely express those ideas directly.
Nevertheless – and this is where I really started to buy into it – The Coming Storm doesn’t merely shatter something else, namely story, it starts to unravel on its own terms. This isn’t simply a neat hatchet job that arrives uninvited, breaks conventions and leaves them for dead. It starts that way, but begins to confuse itself, meandering from bit to bit and scene to scene in a drunken zigzag. It makes you lose your bearings. You know where you started. That was definite, but now Cathy’s exhausting her knowledge of Russian and Richard’s dressed as an old man and there’s a full-blown band and a crocodile gnawing on Richard’s leg and Robin’s just wondering around the stage as if trying to find a place to fit in.
We’re used to finding the story of the show itself in Forced Entertainment’s work; the narrative of the theatrical event as it breaks down. Brilliantly, here even that story bamboozles itself; any ordinary sense of dramaturgy, whereby elements recur and illuminate one another, slips away and the whole frustrates our sense of story precisely by not conforming to those rules laid out at the start. It’s like theatre with Slowly Progressive Dementia.
The Coming Storm is dizzying, but only retrospectively so. Each sequence emerges quite cohesively from its antecedent, but the overall just meanders. It’s rather like a word puzzle where you start with one word and, by changing one letter at a time, end up at another.
…and so on.
Of course, in spite of this, your mind still clutches for meaning and, in trying to impose something like narrative, you start chucking out the square pegs and ignoring any irritating exceptions. For me, the central recurring motif was about age and aging and death – a thought that I’d carried into the auditorium myself. It began to look like the company were struggling with their own process, that they were too old for this shit and too bogged down by their own history, as seen in the constant reflexivity of The Coming Storm’s references (Bloody Mess, Void Story, And on the Thousandth Night, 12am Awake and Looking Down, Who Will Sing a Song etc etc). As the real world starts to bleed in there’s a morose, defeated quality, a sense that the socio-political situation of 27 years ago has returned with a vengeance. There’s also a concern with legacy, with their own story as a company and the singularity of that definition.
All this is in its wending on beyond breakdown to exasperation. ‘That was inevitable,’ snaps Cathy as a wig is smacked on her head. Robin’s still wondering around, trying to find a way in. Elton and Brad and Nicole have set the agenda, while those who have sought to tell the truth are resigned: ‘This doesn’t matter,’ someone says, before the trump off the stage, leaving two women playing the piano with ‘a kind of optimistic melancholy’.
Of course, the show ultimately disproves that jadedness. Just when you think you’ve got Forced Entertainment pinned, however, they take it to another level or another place.