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The Battersea Arts Space, London

Any new piece by Forced Entertainment is wildly anticipated by audiences with a taste for radical performance and Dirty Work (The Night Shift), a revival development of a piece shelved 20 years ago, is enough to whet that appetite and fill every seat.

Sadly the end result is slightly feeble. What should’ve been a telling of modern civilisation in hieroglyphs, a solemn communion between artist and viewer, limped ineffectually into space as the lights finally dimmed.

A man and a woman, dressed for a casual party are seated on stage while a third performer operates a vinyl player emitting a pleasant, haunting piano piece. BAC is an ancient theatre like a music hall and indeed images are offered up to us like a freak at a side show: ‘the mouse with two heads’ or more repetitive layers that build scenes and acts: ‘Scenes of suicide will be presented’. Then more significant events related to historic tragedy: the Battle of the Somme, Hiroshima, etc.Tim Etchells, with Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden, wrote the piece with the poetic and admirable ambition of creating an ‘image machine’ that we as a complicit audience, co-create a wonderful landscape of beauty and horror, expanding within the vacuum of the theatre.

My introduction may sound very harsh, for the text is strong and delivered masterfully by all three performers but the lack of potency I describe is perhaps not attributed to any major fault of Forced Entertainments devising, but an external, crushing and inevitable factor. The world has become darker. Or less generally the way we view it has become more violent, microscopic, repetitive. Pitted against the constant stream of the internet, grainy images of the Somme, technicolour mushrooms clouds or two headed mice on a VHS, are distant, nostalgic even comforting pictures compared with the deluge of cartoons, public beheadings, horrific shootings and twee advertisements that audiences are now subjected to in their daily lives through the net.
‘The Image Machine’ has no other rival and the pictures conjured here in Dirty Work fall on us like light rain.

Although the writing is beautiful and darkly comic something more needs to happen for the ‘power of language’ to be detonated. Mentions of contemporary significant figures like Donald Trump and Osama Bin Laden felt incongruous as the bulk of signifiers seemed pre-90s. To borrow an archaism, the focus was a bit old hat. We look to a novel for the meditative feeding of images but on the empty stage, in our tired, numb and distracted minds, these pictures must be energised. For the play to truly work it must be dragged into the 21st century, kicking and screaming, painted black, then spat out again.

  • Devised and conceived by the company
  • Text by Tim Etchells with Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden
  • Director: Tim Etchells
  • Performed by Robin Arthur, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor
  • The Battersea Arts Space, London
  • Until 1st July 2017
  • Review by Max Wilkinson
  • 29 June 2017

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Max Wilkinson is a director/writer who studied Fine Art (Performance) at Central Saint Martins. He has written and directed a number of shows for the Courtyard, the White Bear, the Bridewell and his new play, Hong Kong City, will be performed at the King's Head Theatre in May. Coming from a Fine Art background he likes to keep a very open mind and has trained internationally with the Wooster Group (NYC), the English Theatre Berlin as well as at home with the British Museum (Shakespeare: Staging the World). Writing for Plays to See allows him to pursue these different interests.

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