Forced Entertainment’s new show, The Coming Storm, kicked off a couple of weeks ago in Essen and, for founding member Cathy Naden, things have gone well despite a rocky start. “We sort of began in one place, couldn’t really get it to work and then had to restart somewhere else so that last four to six weeks have been very intensive. We were working pretty much up until the performance opened.”

The company are well known for their provocative, anarchic style. It’s interesting to wonder just how much the company set out to push buttons when thinking about its audience. “I don’t think we start out to make something difficult or challenging but we are naturally drawn to the feeling where you think you know what you’re watching and then it changes and you’re watching something else. That’s quite a destabilising experience. One minute it can be quite good fun and you’re laughing along but the next minute something quite hard happens so you lurch from one way of watching to another.”

So have audiences changed at all in the last three decades that Forced Entertainment has been performing? Naden doesn’t feel they have hugely but it’s noticeable that modern audiences are far more familiar with narrative fragments. Fifteen years ago, the idea of deconstructed narrative was still somewhat radical and the company were frequently asked, “Is this really theatre?” Today’s audiences, especially youthful ones, are “more familiar with presences on stage as opposed to characters”. Despite audiences being accepting of experimental performance, Forced Entertainment doesn’t have a fixed idea of what it wants each audience member to take away from The Coming Storm. “I think we want them to be really entertained, but also to not be able to sum up in a sentence what they think the show is. We’ve never really liked that idea. Because we never start work from a single idea or issue, like ‘Let’s make a piece about gender politics’.”

Instead, the company make material through a devising process. They start from nothing and material slowly grows and the audience experience the ideas much in the same way. “It’s quite hard to reduce down to a single meaning. It leaves them with something to think about. Maybe it has a lasting effect on them and things come back and there’s work to be done afterwards.” That approach can work in quite a poetic way and the company hope that The Coming Storm has a “poetic, musical, textural” feel to it, whereby “you switch off your head and just go with the experience”.

The show has had a great response from audiences so far. Audiences have been commenting on its differences to previous shows, not least the inclusion of live music, which is unusual for the company. Naden tells us more:“We have an old upright piano, which we got into the rehearsal room and then we’ve been gradually adding a sort of band to that, including a guitar, drums and a bass. We’ve had to find a way of making music feel like part of the performance rather than a simple accompaniment.” None of the company are taught musicians, so the music has been a whole new element for each of them to play with. Naden and co had to learn to play instruments from scratch. There are six performers in total – the usual five players plus Phil Hayes who collaborated with Forced Entertainment on their last anarchic production, The Thrill Of It All. “One of the reasons we wanted to work with Phil again is that as well as a performer he’s a musician so he can play drums and is teaching us how to play, so we’ve learnt basic drum rhythms and a few chords on piano and on the bass. There are certain moments where all the instruments come together but it builds very slowly.”

The show itself is a collection of fragments. Sometimes it’s performers telling stories but often it’s interrupted by loud drums or performers dancing across the stage: “there’s a sort of mismatch between the story and the action, a sort of crazy burlesque dance, an exaggerated personal story.” The starting point was a desire to combine elements from two previous Forced Entertainment shows. The company made a show called Void Story, which was, uncharacteristically for the company,  very interested in narrative. According to Naden, it was the first time they had really gone on stage to tell a story, as deconstructed as that story was. The company are revisiting narrative with the new production but this time the stories are multiple. As well as that, the company felt there was more to be explored in the dance element that was key to last year’s The Thrill Of It All, in which the company pranced around stage in matching costumes in a mad, presentational style.

“We wanted to make the dancing a bit more anarchic, a bit more private and perhaps a bit more inexplicable,” says Naden. “That was the starting point. The show we’ve made is more down the chaotic end of the spectrum and I think the way it works is more like a composition. The way the music works is by playing off different textures and energies and it has a sort of lurching, unstable, improvised, made up feel.” The audience might find themselves watching one character telling a story – a boring, personal anecdote – whilst a stage is constructed around them with plenty of noise and dancing. You might think you’re watching a story but find that you’re merely watching something being set up for a following sequence. The show bounces very quickly between settings and characters. The company use one microphone between them so there’s a sense of interruption that underpins the spoken element of The Coming Storm. “You never get the mic for very long before someone takes it from you. It feels very democratic between the performers on stage. It’s hard to work out what’s going on but in a really satisfying way because you get to see scenes unfolding in front of you and things beginning to make a sort of sense but then dissolve and disappear into something else, and we like that energy very much.”

So things complete and then disappear. One audience member in Essen commented that the piece had an “unsettling” quality that made it “like watching Forced Entertainment in 3D” because of the way that objects were used in space. Would Naden agree? “I think the music has that quality because it’s high energy with the drums and it builds quite slowly and it’s almost like a number or a melody and then it breaks up and falls away and something else takes its place. It’s quite experiential.” In that case, it must be time to experience Forced Entertainment.

The Coming Storm receives its UK premiere as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, showing at Battersea Arts Centre from 19 to 23 June at 7.30pm. For more information and to book tickets, visit BAC’s website.

For more information about Forced Entertainment’s work, visit its website.

Image credit: Hugo Glendinning