Forced Entertainment turn 30 this year. The Sheffield based company have a reputation for making boundary defying work: from concept-driven durational performance pieces to whacky stage shows, their productions consistently challenge the mainstay conventions of naturalistic theatre by deconstructing and re-imagining approaches to narrative and performance. The six ensemble members that make up the company have forged a distinctive style over their many years working together: a wry playfulness, and a willingness to let the audience discover the shows for themselves, rather than serving everything up in the painstakingly obvious and patronising manner that makes so much contemporary British performance unbearable.
Table Top Shakespeare feels in some ways like a creative statement summarising thirty years as pithily as it does the entire body of Shakespeare’s work. Each Shakespeare play is reduced to a little under an hour and performed entirely on a table top by a seated performer, manipulating objects representing the plays’ chief characters. It’s object theatre, basically – using everyday household objects to retell Shakespeare in a simple and evocative way, much like Tim Crouch incorporates objects as stand-ins for characters, places and events in his plays.
The message is simple: when all the paraphernalia and fuss that go into your average theatrical production are dispensed with, what is left is the opportunity for direct engagement with a text and with an audience that has an equal, if not greater, capacity to engage.
I saw three of the thirty-six mini productions: Romeo and Juliet, King John and As You Like It. The approaches were different in each piece, and clearly the performers developed their own ways of reducing the play, though still using the same format.
Terry O’Connor’s Romeo and Juliet felt out of the three the most closely bound to the text – it’s narrative peppered with memorable lines. Witnessing the tragedy of these two young lovers reenacted with Romeo as a little red torch and Juliet as a jar of Rose’s lime marmalade was surprisingly affecting. Partly because the objects (like masks) take on characteristics, and work well as canvasses for your own projected image of a given character. Partly because reducing the play to a third person narrative results in the story becoming crystal clear. And partly because O’Connor is such an engaging performer.
Cathy Naden’s King John was a very different experience. It’s a play that not a lot of people know, and (like most of the history plays) it’s plot heavy. Whereas Romeo and Juliet felt at times like watching a karaoke version of a well-known song, this was like seeing a forensic scientist at work – with Naden delicately uncovering plot intricacies for us to observe and study. I felt more in this piece than in any other that I was seeing the mechanics of Shakespeare’s play laid bare. Naden revealed how canny the structuring of the play is: we witnessed the manipulation of key events to create narrative suspense and tragic disappointments in ways that it would be difficult to notice in a standard production.
As You Like It, performed by Robin Arthur, was the crowd pleaser. It played fast and loose with the text (was even improvisatory in feel), and whereas O’Connor and Naden’s pieces refrained from doing the police in different voices (or if they did embody characteristics, they did so very subtly) – Arthur offered very definite takes. It was a much more energised version, replete with its own gags.
Fascinating, really, seeing these different approaches. I was challenged by the more neutral, deconstructive approach; entertained by the more traditional storytelling version; moved by the simplicity and directness. Of course you lose a lot in the table top version of a Shakespeare play. You miss a sense of the relationships, and of course the language. But in other ways the experience is far richer: the narrative becomes abundantly clear, and you have an opportunity to interrogate the play in ways that it’s less easy to do when watching a traditional production. And the simplicity and directness of the storytelling can deliver as strong an impact as a whole company of actors.
Like I say – it’s a neat expression of all that Forced Entertainment represent: the conviction and proof that stories can be told in compelling and thought provoking ways without always deploying the same old tricks of the trade.