Review: Out of Order, Southbank Centre

Terror, amusement, nostalgia or awe, clowns have forever been subject to a spectrum of emotional responses – it’s their job. But, introduced as the toy in Forced Entertainment’s latest post-dramatic playground Out of Order, our old friend (or foe) is taken to unfamiliar depths of chaos and confusion.

Six clowns are plucked kicking and (silently) screaming from their usual colourful associations and dropped, smeared-face-first, onto a minimalist stage with layers and layers of naked rigging, and furnished only with neon edge lighting and a wooden table surrounded by ten nervous chairs. The clowns enter, take their seats, and quickly find themselves in an exhausting loop of picking and breaking up very physically demanding and messy fights.

Out of Order is Forced Entertainment’s first text-less performance, and watching them navigate this new wordless terrain is an intentionally frustrating and violent adventure set on a repeat. Music propels a lot of the action, with Val Martinez’s ‘Someone’s Gonna Cry’ quite poignantly returning again and again as a hypnotic force behind every new fight. This violent repetition is uncomfortable to watch, as the bodies on stage progressively tire, lost for purpose and passion, until the next weapon of antagonisation that reveals traces of an old routine (colourful balloons, bicycle horns, Strauss’s famous waltz on repeat) drives a quickly exhausted new episode of aggressive entertainment. 

Fights becomes half-hearted, obviously choreographed or over before they have even begun. With this degree of repetition, a level of shared exhaustion and boredom on the audience’s part is inevitable. Boring or disappointing your audience is a risky game to play, but there is a sense that these characters are not here for us at all, but only to pass their own time in an aggressively nihilistic sort of existence. As a result, I found myself simultaneously moved in my boredom- a unique experience, to say the least. 

Unusually for Forced Entertainment (and for clowning), the spectators and our reactions are largely ignored. Sparse bursts of laughter that pop up around the auditorium seem less encouraged by the performers and more forced by the spectators themselves in what seems to be a bid to keep something of the clowns’ ghosted purpose alive. The clowns create an unusual space in which laughter feels dangerous and unwelcome, so a few aside glances from Robin Arthur’s clown during a particularly difficult second act feel forced and unnecessary. In this, a spectrum of ‘caring’ is established in the characters.

Periods of silence that penetrate Alex Fernandes’ heavily musical sound design invite the audience’s part in this ‘out of order’ theatrical exchange: coughs, the shuffling of my notebook pages, the shedding of jackets, are all added rebellious offerings into this collaborative space of unruly play.

Clowns and violently victimised chairs are no strangers to Forced Entertainment’s stage, as the company also use Out of Order to showcase a witty and indulgent continuity by reflecting on past projects such as Bloody Mess. It’s always satisfying to see a company stick to their guns and expand on signature imagery whilst exploring new forms, and with Out of Order, director Tim Etchells seamlessly balances stylistic traditions with brave choreographic strides forward for the company.

In further Forced Entertainment style, spectators are constantly referred outside of the theatre to a political setting, a boardroom, perhaps even a particularly difficult family meal. All of these imagined scenarios are squeezed into an impossible theatrical game whereby the players must sabotage something already destroyed in a worrying glimpse into the ‘state of the nation’.

As the show abruptly ends in a similar, messier, image of its beginnings, the cyclical structure of the show continues beyond the curtain call, cleverly resetting itself into how the clowns began their show: smeared, uncomfortable, tired.

Out of Order played the Southbank Centre until 14 October. For more information, visit the Southbank Centre website.