Image Hugo Glendinning
There are only two things that are certain in this world. Death and taxes. And while there are few theatre shows about taxes, there are certainly more than a few about death.
Renowned British theatre company Forced Entertainment tackle the subject in their latest show Spectacular, on at the North Melbourne Town Hall.
Spectacular is an ironic title in terms of the deconstructed style of the work. The set is a bare stage with all theatrical artifice stripped away, the lighting rig starkly conspicuous, with even the curtains tied up and out of the way.
A mild mannered skeleton steps out into the space, his appearance shabby and comical. He apologises and describes another show to us, the show we were meant to see instead of this one, a show with dancers and a band and a ‘driving baseline’.
As he begins to fill the space descriptively with potted plants, spiral staircases and witty repartee, it’s almost as if he’s the emcee at a ghostly cabaret. He ruminates on the purpose of theatre, the futility and absurdity of the make believe - ignoring the fact that we are being lectured to by a skeleton with a painted on smiley face.
His monologue is interrupted by the appearance of Claire who states in a wonderfully droll tone that she should ‘like to do her dying now’. And die she proceeds to do - for the next hour or so. With varying levels of theatrical hysterics from screaming and stabbing to sobbing and shaking she shudders and writhes, trapped in the kind of death throes that would have had Shakespeare himself saying take it down a notch.
Spectacular is performed by two of the core members of Forced Entertainment ,Claire Marshall and Robin Arthur and directed by Tim Etchells. It is two death scenes placed side by side, both literal and metaphorical representations and both drawn out and meandering, filled with heavy breathing and a very dry sense of humour.
The work is an example of the kind of anti-virtuosic theatre that artists like Wendy Houston and Australian company The Fondue Set have been exploring. A kind of deconstructed theatre, where the machinations of the illusion are stripped away and all the artifice of theatre is laid bare. There are aspects of ‘theatrical death’ in these pieces - the crushing performative death of the unfunny stand up comic or the painfully unconvincing actor. These works play on testing the audience’s attention and their patience, deliberately losing them and then winning them back again.
Marshall and Arthur are masters of navigating this performative tightrope and it is in this way Spectacular has the feeling of a durational piece. Although it is only 75 minutes long (as opposed to the 6 hour shows Forced Entertainment used to perform) the performers utilise varying levels of activity and engagement, leaving us teetering on the edge of boredom - only to reel us back in again with a quip or a well timed shudder.
The sparseness of the performance space allows the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks, provoking active viewing and an exchange of experience and energy. The ‘spectacular’ theatrical extravaganza the skeleton describes hasn’t been performed at us to view passively; it now exists uniquely in the mind of each audience member.
Spectacular is decidedly low key in terms of design and performance stye but it does pose some interesting questions in terms of the purpose and form of theatre, the presence of death in everyday life and our attitudes towards it.
But one can only hope that when death eventually does arrive, it’s in the guise of a wisecracking Englishman from Sheffield.
Forced Entertainment (UK) presents
Venue: Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall | 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne
Dates: Thu 6 - Sat 8 August
Times: Thu, Fri & Sun 7.45pm, Sat 3pm & 7.45pm
Tickets: Full $35/ Conc $28
Bookings: www.artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096