I would say that I pride myself on ‘getting’ theatre. There’s nothing I love more than trotting along to see an experimental play with a boyfriend or family member, watching the stage get covered in ketchup and cream for an hour, then as the lights go up, turning smugly to my perplexed +1 and saying something like; “Wow! Didn’t you love how they merged hyper-realism with Dada? Talk about Verfremdungseffect!”
The trouble is that these feelings of cultural self-satisfaction only really occur if the person one decides to take to the theatre is reasonably non artsy. Go along with a group of fellow, erstwhile theatre students however and the boundaries shift. It becomes almost impossible to show off without showcasing your ignorance/looking like a nob.
This was precisely the problem when my old university crowd decided to get together and see Forced Entertainment’s The Thrill of It All at Riverside Studios a couple of weeks ago. We were all very excited about this little excursion, not least because, despite having read all of Tim Etchells’ manifestos and written several essays on Forced Ent’s groundbreaking work, none of us had ever actually seen them perform live.
The Thrill of It All, from what I could gather from my eager, pre-performance research, was partly devised as a counter attack on the hyper-sentimentality of our current entertainment culture. The syrupy sadness of the reality show sob story, the cruelty of the X Factor judges, and the notion of our society as a passive TV audience are taken and parodied in a two hour performance that has the company dancing wildly and childishly in sparkly dresses and Elvis wigs. Bumping recklessly into the cheesy set, whilst occasionally shouting out meaningless phrases such as “This is my dream!” and “We’re all so happy you’re here!”.
In comments made on the Forced Entertainment website, Etchells emphasises the vacuous hysteria of emotion played out on television sets across the country. The Thrill of It All aims to challenge this hollow sentimentality, forcing its audience to question what it really means to feel and react to situations in the present moment.
I wanted more than anything to adore this performance, to come away with all my expectations confirmed. After all, Forced Entertainment were the experimental theatre company of the 80s and 90s. They pushed buttons that had never been pushed before. They revelled in their mid show walkouts and their letters of complaint from ‘Outraged! Of Oxfordshire.’ In a time when many others were stuck in the doldrums, Forced Ent pushed forwards and made some of the most exciting theatre of their generation.
However, after two hours of watching The Thrill of It All, I had to conclude that there was something desperately incomplete about the show. It felt thin and unoriginal. The company played around with preconceived notions of masculine and feminine identity, but in ways that I found banal and rather irritating. They attempted to reach out to the audience by insulting us, but managed only a couple of very weak digs which barely raised any reaction at all. Even the message itself lacked something. For if Etchells had meant to provide a parody of television culture, then he failed completely to acknowledge that television often parodies itself. Shows such as X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing may be ridiculous, but they are also highly self aware, and it is partly this that makes them so watchable. Had the company gone deeper into this concept, they may have produced a far more interesting exploration of our culture than they eventually did. Instead, The Thrill of It All, whilst amusing and thought provoking in places, ended up feeling extremely repetitive and rather sluggish.
Perhaps Forced Entertainment have lost their touch, perhaps with so many new and exciting theatre companies on the scene nowadays they have become outdated. Or perhaps, heaven forbid, I simply didn’t get it. Either way, as we left the theatre that night, loftily discussing the ins and outs of Etchells’ trademark approach to the avant-garde, I began to seriously miss my absent non-artsy friend, who would inevitably have looked at as all as if we were mad and said something like; “well I thought it was absolute twaddle…”