International innovators Forced Entertainment tangle and cross-cut multiple stories to make a comical, contradictory and poignant performance. Six performers create, collaborate, ambush and disrupt this epic saga that is resolutely too big for the stage.
Forced Entertainment’s latest ‘play’ is something of a misnomer. Far from being a play in its own right, The Coming Storm instead takes the unusual and different approach of deconstructing what stories actually mean in our modern day era.
Taking its cues from how we are bombarded in society with images and stories, from adverts through to novels, movies and music, Forced Entertainment delivers a fascinating, if bewildering montage of sequences.
The Coming Storm begins with an explanation, or an invitation – or maybe both – of what makes a ‘good story’. Obviously this turns out to be largely subjective the deeper in Forced Entertainment’s rabbit hole that you delve.
Key to this is the microphone that sits centre stage as you enter the theatre. Director Tim Etchells commented on a BBC Radio 4 programme that the microphone acts as a “formal frame to help decision and build logic”. Certainly as the six performers engage in a tug of war of attention, not only for the microphone, but for your attention, the internal logic of the performance slowly builds as the walls holding the narrative fall apart.
It is this tension and competition, not only for the cast to tell, but finish their stories that forms the framework for this performance. More of an anti-narrative piece, it deconstructs what fiction is. In the process, it eschews everything that it tells us constitutes a ‘good story’ in frequently hilarious and surreal ways.
“Don’t look at him, watch me dancing” purrs Terry O’Connor as she tries to dance across the stage whilst other members of the cast pretend to be a forest, or a crocodile, or adjust their wigs in the background. Such diverse and contrasting imagery serves to accentuate the increasingly fantastical stories as you are bombarded with sound and visual cues.
Richard Lowdon is continually blocked from telling his story by being asked “Who would play you, if this were a Hollywood film?” Whilst the gag works, it also opens up another avenue, as if his story would somehow be more valid, or engaging, if his ‘friend’ were portrayed by Brad Pitt.
Claire Marshall can barely restrain a smirk from her face, adding another layer to this complex piece. If she cannot contain her mirth at the ever more ridiculous and improvisational nature of engagement, what hope the audience? But what her laughter perhaps signifies is the ridiculousness of modern society through how the production breaks down what the programme describes as “contemporary experience”.
Robin Arthur wanders around the stage trying to change the experience so that he can fit into someones, anyone’s story whilst Cathy Naden seemingly struggles and attempts to hold the whole thing together before snapping at poor Phil Hayes as he tries to tell us about his dying mother.
It is refreshing to see a cast experienced in their trade. Not only in terms of their experience of working together as a troupe, but age wise. An enlightening post show Q&A crystallised some of what they are trying to say and do through this elusive show. One thing that is clear, Forced Entertainment are trying to push the boundaries of how you think and respond to performance. How well they have succeeded, without sounding trite, is down to individual preference. Some will learn for a cohesive narrative, others will get the disjointed nature of the production.
Yet for all of this, there is something lacking. The Coming Storm is too long, potentially outstaying its welcome. The longer that the fragments of stories go on, the more it feels artificially dragged out, and that in turn highlights the unfinished nature of each story. However, it is very entertaining to see something so challenging and thought provoking, that also maintains its own internal consistency, even if it only just manages to.
It does not shy away from antagonising the audience, and is not afraid to leave things hanging without a solid conclusion. That missing something makes it very difficult for me to quantify this review with a verdict. In turn, I suppose that very act of not being able to pin it down means that Forced Entertainment have succeeded in their mission.
The Coming Storm is on tour until 1 December at the Battersea Arts Centre. Further dates can be found on Forced Entertainment’s website.