Saturday 8 December 2012

Very Etchells indeed

Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First, Battersea Arts Centre, London

Tim Etchells is a man who could bore for Britain. Boring is not always a bad thing. Jim Fletcher could make the shipping forecast fascinating. Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First is a list of formulaic sentences – some factual, some less so, all presented in the same flat tone – written by Etchells and recited, from memory, by Fletcher.

The audience is a group of people who sit alongside and drift in and out. An hour is both an age and no time at all. The critic is a member of the audience, who sometimes chuckles and sometimes doodles little pictures of Jim Fletcher in his notebook, while quietly musing on the nature of truth and knowledge for the duration.

Etchells’ string of sentences is – or, rather, replicates – the mode of free association. Sometimes sentences follow on from the one before, perhaps clarifying or picking up some loose end. Elsewhere, they hop, like a skipping CD, into completely new territory. ‘Pornography is not an art. No man is an island,’ Fletcher rattles off.

Actually, maybe there’s more of a connection there than there seemed in the moment; the latter somehow justifies the former. Connections are an inherent part of the form; by invoking free association, the swirling undercurrent of the subconscious mind, you’re always looking for threads, for associations, for the synaptic sparks that might have born these ideas in this order.

There’s also an interesting paradoxical quality to the act of performance. It is memorised, fixed in consciousness, and almost the exact opposite to the writing process (as it pertains to be). This is, at base, fakery, yet Fletcher’s reaching to remember a sequence stands in for lulls in a creative process. It’s no mean feat, which probably explains the evident nerves. (‘An elephant never forgets,’ effectively comes twice. Very Etchells, that gag. Very Etchells indeed.) Elsewhere, though, more reflective pauses, more deliberated and calm, seem to suggest a level of conscious selection that runs equally opposite to the flow of free association.

Fletcher, an Easter Island statue of a man, plays Gatsby in Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz. Tonight, his right leg is shaking like a pneumatic drill. Why should this be so exposing? He has nothing but memory to disappear into and only a list to hide behind. The risk of failure, of a mid-motorway breakdown, is ever-present.

Bald and facially stolid, Fletcher could totally play a Hollywood general. He is straightfaced, almost stern, and the whole takes on the feeling of a military briefing for a group about to intermingle with an alien race. It is, in other words, serious. It’s stand-up, without the niceties. But also a sermon. Also without the niceties. (Beneath everything, though, it’s just a musical score made of words.) There is a curious mix of the institutional – in the seriousness of the pursuit of knowledge – and the playground – in the simplicity of the terms used.

The sentences are all presented in the same manner, as definitive statements. They sound like facts and indeed many are, particularly early on. Then, value judgements start to creep in. ‘Life is not fair,’ Fletcher deadpans, or ‘The human brain is not really like a computer’. Sometimes metaphors get mangled into literalism: ‘Silence is golden’ comes later.

In the mix are two definitions of a lie – one is ‘an untruth’, another ‘when you say something that’s not truth’. Others might pop in a third, invoking the intention to deceive. For under the first two definitions, all of what Fletcher says is a lie. The simplicity of the statements, the amount they leave out, means that one’s mind immediately looks for an exception.

He tells us that the skin on the back of our neck is very soft and, around the auditorium, hands immediately reach to check. We attempt to falsify what he’s saying and, because words can’t paint the full picture, they always fall short, everything he says is susceptible to being disproved. It follows then that, actually, even those that look like facts are no more solid than those that look like opinion or nonsense.

And what a pleasure it is to mull such vagaries in Fletcher’s company. He has an extraordinary capacity to engage, doling out eye contact around an audience in such a way that makes you feel certain statements are intended for you alone, sometimes accusatory, sometimes almost a gift. He deadpans like nobody else and his natural expression – right eyebrow slightly higher than his left – lends him an air of puzzlement, as he figures out the world with this litaneutical lull.


Run over.


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Royal Shakespeare Company
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