Thursday, 24 October 2013
Forced Entertainment – Tomorrow’s Parties / Cambridge Junction, 23.10.2013
Two actors stand on stage and for nearly an hour describe ‘their’ visions of the future. One of the actors is male, and one of them is female. The stage is almost bare, apart from a pretty but minimal assemblage of coloured light bulbs, like, say, the partial twinkling background to tomorrow's fairly elaborate party in a middle-class garden. This set-up gestures, in a decorative, but neither decorous nor decadent way, towards a sober reduction of theatrical illusionism, while reminding us that we are witnessing a piece of theatre. It is ‘sober’ but ‘playful’, a cod-moral reductionism, with suitable austerity.
The actors stand on a wooden box. Or, not a box exactly; more, what looks like a refurbished packing crate. This refurbishment, with its suggestion of a kind of daily functionality, renders their ‘elevation’ from the flat stage down-to-earth, so to speak. Like people wearing jeans. The actors do not wear jeans, but their dress is smart-casual. Their attitude is of a somewhat stiff, calculated, nonchalant cool; or, not quite cool, more a relaxed ease that will put the audience at its ease, able to identify with its spokesman-pals. His attitude is more blokey, like one of the ‘intelligent everymen’ that populate the slightly more ‘highbrow’ TV or radio general-knowledge panel shows; hers with just the requisite amount of quasi-feminist responsive wit, similarly at home in and familiar to us from that kind of scenario.
The actors we see are every person, where every person is the comfortable middle-class human being interested in attending and keeping up with developments in contemporary quasi-experimental theatre, with issues of thought and aesthetics that may prove troubling, but also diverting and absorbing, in the part of their life that they parcel out to the consideration of such issues; for example, over a glass of wine at home or in a public space outside the home, or at a local book-signing, or the local theatre.
The actors we see are every person, or so the feeling of this evening would seem to suggest, reliant on a cosy performer-audience relationship discoursing on topics of interest, whose framing nonetheless challenges some ‘boundaries’ of what ‘you’ might expect from ‘theatre’. The discourse of these actors is, essentially, an endless series of extended twitter summaries of the future imaginings one might find in sci-fi movies or novels, without the graphics and the detailed ethical shadings; or, polite conversation down your local wine-bar when you are being philosophical, profound, and generally liberal in all the correct, non-racist, anti-corporate ways. This is the formulation used: Actor 1: “In the future, [description of future scenario]”; [pause]; Actor 2: “Or, [description of future scenario which riffs off or competes with the previous scenario].” Repeat this until the lights dim on succeeding scenarios of great pathos, in which we wonder whether the future will retain any memory of our present; oh! we are all so transient despite our secure and happy lives, what will we leave behind us, our chins sink into our thoughtful hands for a moment’s silence before the whooping applause breaks out of our rapturous mouths.
It would seem that we are being set up. But the set-up, though it suggests this, doesn’t actually go through with its implied challenge, at least to the extent that anyone would realize. By which I mean, the entertainment is precisely unforced, within the boundaries of repetitive framing boredom it sets up. So that the shtick of the whole performance isn’t, 'let’s explore boredom and imposition and alienation as a mode of self-questioning and of questioning the respective roles of performers and audience, their collaboration in comfort'; rather, it’s, 'let’s make alienation as fun and entertaining as possible'. It’s the delivery that gets this across, that calculated ‘naturalness’ cliché by which an actor inserts strategically-placed pauses to indicate that they haven’t memorized a script which they are now reciting; oh no, they are in fact pausing in order to find, to improvise, the words they are going to speak next, as in conversation! Or, the quasi stand-up delivery which dutifully forces forth fairly regular bursts of laughter from the audience. Even this, which is forced entertainment, isn’t used as questioning, though, really: in a later section one of the actors describes a future scenario involving systematized discrimination against the ‘less intelligent’ and less-educated, but the disturbing implications of this are smoothed away as she indicates the other actor when describing the ‘less intelligent’, turning it into a kind of sly joke that plays on the repartee-edge of their alternating future-visions: a man and a woman, bickering a little, their relationship not overtly sexual or even particular flirtatious in even a mild sense, but still endearingly like enough to that of a couple, or a husband and wife, talking about things ‘we’ ‘all’ care about, like work and family and even ‘fucking’ (the word repeated to describe public sex in ‘naughty’ ‘daring’, ‘daring’ us to approve it in order to prove our liberal credentials), in a manner almost overwhelmingly characterised by a kind of bland Radio 4 or BBC TV heterosexuality. The man will say something vaguely sexist; the woman will respond with a banterous response. They both deplore war. There’s some suggestion that the frequent recurrence of ‘work’ within often dystopian scenarios is being used as a reflection on present conditions of labour; as when it’s suggested that a future society might re-instate slavery, under certain ‘moral’ conditions and restraints, by which one would sign a contract in which one became a slave for a strictly limited period of time. But the formal standard by which each scenario is treated as equal, a level playing field, smoothed out, serves as a deflation of utopian hopes for a kind of generally pessimistic liberal world-weariness, which nonetheless has at its heart the requisite comfortable humanism and reliance on the stable values of family and morality, and so on and so on. We all agree on the rightness of these things; we have read it in the Guardian newspaper, which is no doubt the newspaper title written down by the majority of the audience when asked which newspaper they regularly read, on the feedback form that they are encouraged to fill out and hand in. Let us reason together. Serious issues treated with a light touch. The bourgeois subject takes their views to be universal ones. All topics are equally covered. This is presented as a kind of universalism, though it would never go so far as to call itself that. Utopianism is a joke for dummies, which we will nonetheless obscure with a modicum of framing attentive sympathy and interest. At one point one of the actors suggested, with a trace of wistfulness, that, in the future, trade unions might once again become important. The moment passed without a trace. The impossibility of talking about the future, illustrated by talking, at great length, about the future. But you are also really talking about the present. You can see where this might be going. It never goes far enough.