Forced Entertainment is 30 years old this year and they are collecting 365 word-long stories about people’s experiences of the company’s work. I have long been a fan and have probably seen 7 or 8 of their shows but there’s one that sticks out for me.
I have exceeded the word count limit, so this is going on our BLOG rather than possibly ending up in their book, but because it’s about a 24-hour long show, I’m finding it impossible to edit to size.
I worked in the marketing department at the Southbank Centre when Who Can Sing A Song To Unfrighten Me? was programmed into LIFT 1999 during Rose and Lucy (and Alistair Spalding)’s reign. Somehow (no offence to anyone concerned), we had to sell tickets for this show.
I wrote a direct mail letter (remember those?) to a selection of hundreds of hand-picked, risk-taking ticket buyers, describing how I personally was planning to tackle the experience. The thing is, once that letter had been sent, out of some sense of moral duty, I felt obliged to do exactly what I said I would do, which was:
1. To definitely be there right at the start, and see how long I lasted without an interval.
I can’t remember how many ‘cycles’ this stint included, but by the time I forced myself to go home and get some sleep I was slightly delirious. Also, as the evening wore on, I decided to bring a little party atmosphere to proceedings by getting a bit merry... It became clear that this was not going to be detrimental to the experience and as night time turned to day I felt discombobulated enough to be unsure as to whether I needed another drink or a strong coffee as I dragged myself out into the bright sunlit morning, coming face to face with one of the best views in London.
2. Take a break.
Home to bed for a kip, and see what time I materialise. I woke up, went shopping, I even actually bought a leather jacket (I felt I'd earned it))! Then I popped back into the show to see how they were all getting on. Things had changed, everyone was clearly tired and the performance had a completely different energy to it. I later discover that Tim Etchells ‘came back’ to find company members ‘being way too helpful and nice’ to each other, in terms of getting through the performance. They were maybe moving things out of the way, or helping to clear a particular set when it wasn’t their responsibility. Maybe they were leaning on each other, literally, for support, backstage. Apparently Tim put a stop to all that.
The dog listening to the Russian language ‘record’ was still inexplicably hilarious, though not quite as funny as when I first saw it (nothing to do with being intoxicated first time around). The rest of the cycles are sketchy now. People in gorilla suits? People dressed as skeletons? I think both made appearances but I couldn’t tell you what they did or what the hell happened.
3. Be there at the end.
I returned after my 'afternoon dip' for the final hour or two and I was certainly there, with a few hundred other people, to applaud the performers at their curtain call, though of course there was no curtain. A couple of truly hardcore fans stayed for the full 24 hours without stopping. This did not go unnoticed and they were invited backstage at the end of the show to celebrate with the exhausted company.
Yes it was an endurance test. No there was no narrative, plot or, seemingly, point. It was however one of the most memorable theatre experiences I have ever experienced, and one that I remember least, if that’s not a contradiction.
The performance ran from midnight to midnight and it was about 12.45am In the green room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall when I found myself sitting next to to Tim Etchells. ‘So what are your plans, what is Forced Entertainment going to do next?’ I asked. His reply: ‘I’d rather not think about that right now.’ was, unlike the show itself, perfectly understandable.
Happy 30th Birthday Forced Entertainment.