Tuesday 25 January 2005

Art, comedy, and defying the expectations of the critics

Interview with Stuart Silver, one half of Noble and Silver

Noble and Silver are a comedy double act with a reputation for puzzling and annoying as well as entertaining. In part, this is because what they do isn’t really comedy. Kim Noble and Stuart Silver met while studying fine art, and in a sense what they practise is performance art rather than comedy, or certainly stand up comedy as we’ve come to understand it. Audiences expecting a stream of jokes or amusing observations are likely to be disappointed.

‘The criticism that it’s not funny enough is always a bit of a pain,’ Stuart Silver tells me. ‘But that doesn’t seem to be levelled at us so much any more, which is quite pleasing.’ I wonder if that’s because their work is funnier or because people don’t expect it to be funny any more. ‘Maybe it’s funny now! Maybe that’s where we were going wrong before!’

Joking aside, Noble and Silver’s choice of medium is an interesting one. I ask what it was that attracted them to comedy. ‘I think it was the venue, the fact that you could do something very easily, suddenly, in a space. There’s a different kind of edge to comedy spaces. We failed abysmally in a lot of them, because we’d lug loads of equipment across London, slide projectors and stereos and instruments just to do a five-minutes. People just didn’t like us. We didn’t do that for very long, because we need a bit of time to get things rolling, and five-minute spots don’t work so well. But it was the fact that we could just get to an audience and try something. And there is humour in what we’re doing; it’s about having a bit of a laugh. It’s play as well. A lot of it is just taking on little theatrical tricks and filmic tricks, so we kind of pick from different worlds as many people do, but I think it’s the fact that we combine a lot of things, and try and get a lot of people involved.’

So have they succeeded now in generating an audience that appreciates what they’re trying to do? ‘We have quite a mixed audience. There are loads of people around that like bits of everything, and obviously in London it’s very easy to be like that, and catch a lot of different things. But I don’t know how quickly we are building up an audience. I’m not sure how much of a following is following - they keep a safe distance! Maybe there is, but I don’t think it’s born from us, but I think what we do appeals to certain people that like a bit of play.’

In fact, Noble and Silver could be seen as part of a nascent movement of experimental theatre. Silver mentions Complicite, Oyster Group, Ridiculusmus, and Forced Entertainment as other people who excite them. ‘We like that very personal feel, and that feel of blurring genres. One of the reasons for going into comedy was that we didn’t know what was going to happen there and we thought it would be a challenge. There can be something a bit safe about the art world. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy game, but it was right for us at that stage to try something a bit unexpected.’

In choosing to experiment with comedy, however, Noble and Silver invited certain expectations, not just of audiences, but also of critics, and their refusal to fulfil those expectations has frustrated many. ‘We’ve had some quite ferocious responses, and it’s not a joy, but it’s nice to have a bit of passion. I’d rather have that than shrugs, take it or leave it.’ Indeed, some kind of critical response is vital for anyone trying to make it in comedy. The artist Pavel Büchler has written about the need for ‘artistic licence’, some sort of institutional or quasi-institutional backing to give legitimacy to what artists do. Noble and Silver’s application for a comedy licence is perhaps still being considered, but winning the Perrier Newcomer Award at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe (the traditional testing ground for new comedy acts) gave them a certain legitimacy.

‘We would never pitch ourselves as being purely comedy, and I think if we did we’d be ruined,’ Silver admits. ‘When we first went up to Edinburgh we had some really harsh criticism - people just didn’t like it and were really anti-us, and we got zero stars… Then one person [Sam Taylor of the Guardian] supported it, in terms of journalists, and we were lucky enough to get the Perrier, and that changes things. People come along with an expectation that means even if they’re not that into it, there is a little bit of respect. Even if they think, “Oh, it’s absolutely shit”, it’s still got that kind of credit to it. That’s why we still write it on the poster!’

‘It’s going to run a bit dry soon. It is a bit stretched,’ he laughs. But he is also keen to emphasise that Noble and Silver are not entirely dependent on their comedy reputation. ‘We did a big art show in Beaconsfield in London, a month’s residency, and that was really exciting. We had a big massive space in the top room and put a big wall projection in and did shows fitted to individuals, with just loads of stuff going on. And recently we went to Preston and did a show in a cinema. We got arts-funding to go to a UCI cinema and put a few stooges in the audience and before the main feature we played out a short film that no-one was expecting, and interacted with it in the theatre. There are people who see us as doing things like that as well as people who see us as a comedy double act.’

Indeed, on top of not really doing comedy, Noble and Silver are not really a double act. They make very little, for example, of the comic difference between their two physiques. Their current show at Soho Theatre is really two separate shows performed simultaneously on opposite ends of the stage. ‘It allows us both to achieve what we want. They’re both - partly by chance, partly because it’s the way we generally work anyway - they’re both very autobiographical pieces. They’re both about ourselves.’ This is very true, and in fact autobiography veers into self-exposure, sometimes literally. ‘It’s quite raw in places, quite brutal,’ Silver concedes. ‘At least Kim’s show is anyway!’ Indeed, Kim Noble’s show, which leans heavily on pre-recorded video clips, often feels like reality TV, with Noble’s personal life laid bare for our entertainment. As a dubious bonus of live performance, we can even smell him.

Silver’s show is rather gentler. He chats to the audience, and tries to get us to feel part of the show. ‘There is quite a large element of play,’ he says. ‘I try and get involved as much as I can with the audience in this show, and in my life as well, so there’s a lot of chances for people to come and join in me for events. My parents 35th anniversary is coming up, so they’re having a big get-together with obviously my family, but also people that would like to come from the audience.’ The involvement of Silver’s family is interesting, as the atmosphere generated by the show has something in common with a large family get-together. We sit, slightly uncomfortably, smiling to show that we are in no way threatened by the strange behaviour of our hosts, while a ‘volunteer’ makes sandwiches for us. There is a palpable attempt to redefine not only comedy, but the whole business of performance and the relationship between performers and audiences. No wonder critics have a hard time with this. How on Earth do you ‘judge’ a family get-together?

Given the importance of the audience to the current show, it is intriguing that Noble and Silver have also done a fair amount of TV. Silver explains the difference. ‘TV was really exciting, because a lot of the things we do are video-based, so it wasn’t like an alien thing in that sense, but obviously a lot of the procedures and processes were pretty strange. What we found is that, the thing about doing something live is that there’s a mutual threat to performers and audience. Both can have a really good time, and both can have a really hard time. With television you obviously lose that edge, and that’s why the live stuff has had more of an edge. We’re quite ambitious and want to push the live stuff to do more, and involve our herd of elephants… in a casino somewhere…’

This is quite appealing, but Noble and Silver’s ambition is clearly testing the limits of comedy, economically as well as artistically. ‘We’re pushing for more arts-funded stuff that will enable us to keep working really. One of the difficulties is that we don’t have a lot of money, and we’ve always put our own money into these things. That would be the reason that we would stop doing stuff, but we’ve got a certain amount of our own kit, but it’s that ambition, that each time we want to up it and go a little further…’

Who knows where Noble and Silver will go next? Certainly, God only knows how they’re going to pay for it. What’s for sure though, is that anyone interested in new and emerging forms of performance that subvert the expectations of audiences and critics, for better or worse, would do well to watch this space.

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