The Coming Storm / Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First

Before I begin (and, incidentally, I hope you’re sitting comfortably) I feel compelled to admit that Friday evening wasn’t the first time I’d seen Forced Entertainment’s latest show The Coming Storm. I first experienced this clowning dissection of the art of narrative some months ago as part of LIFT, and have since read a number of other responses to the show and discussed it with a number of different people. In critical terms, if we’re going to play along with the fallacy of “pureness” and “objectivity”, my reception of this performance was tainted. Yet it feels oddly appropriate, for a piece that plays with the stories we project onto others as much as the ones we hear and tell, that I already brought my own narrative around the show into the room.

The observant among you will also notice that this piece of writing, according to its title, is not just responding to The Coming Storm. I saw it at Battersea Arts Centre alongside Tim Etchells’ new show Sight is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First, a virtuosic symphony of free-association performed by Jim Fletcher. I could have written about these two pieces separately, which might in many ways have made sense, as they do not initially appear to have a great deal in common other than Etchells. But the way in which the pieces were placed in relation to one another, and my experience of them in quick succession, creates a certain response that it feels worth acknowledging. I am, to look at it one way, framing the story.

So, to the beginning. As Terry O’Connor tells us, deadpan into the microphone with the other performers assembled in a line alongside her, “a good story needs a good beginning”. Forced Entertainment’s point of departure is a list, continuing almost to oblivion, of all the elements that make up a successful story: narrative drive, cliffhangers, a love triangle, a death. Immediately, fragments of narrative begin to attach themselves to the performers, who through minuscule gestures take on the role of signifiers. Performers might be implicitly cast as lovers or as enemies. It’s calculated, but pointedly not pointed; the movements of the performers, though suggestive, place the act of projection firmly with the audience. We are the ones who ultimately make the connections.

And this is much how the show continues. Just as it seems Terry’s toneless litany of narrative building blocks might dry up, the microphone is snatched from her, initiating a chain of preposterous, failed or interrupted stories from the rest of the performers. Tales rarely finish – some barely begin. While attempted narratives are breathed into the microphone, the other performers concentrate their energies into chaotic distractions, donning dodgy wigs and masks and underscoring the stories with drumbeats and piano music. Dissonant elements clash and collide. But throughout the pandemonium, the same floating signifiers emerge and dissipate, inviting spectators to make connections that are not there.

Just as each of the individual narratives subverts or fails to fulfil Terry’s initial requirements for a good story, the overall structure of the piece breaks its own lengthily established rules. It meanders, stumbles, defies narrative logic. The cleverness lies in the fact that the show’s very failure (or staging of its own failure, though it doesn’t feel quite that neat) is an affirmation of the need it identifies. If our attention wanders or becomes frustrated, it’s because we’re seeking that narrative to latch onto, a narrative that Forced Entertainment smash apart at the same time as they erase their own creation. The repeated cycle of creation and destruction goes on until the whole collapses in on itself, dropping to its knees, wheezing and exhausted, with a closing note of “melancholy optimism”.

In the midst of this destructive anarchy, the stories themselves can seem irrelevant, random. Their substance is perhaps less important than their form and their (failed) techniques. They borrow from and break convention upon convention, from Hollywood movie (Cathy Naden periodically intervenes in stories to demand which actor would play a particular character) to cabaret confessional, each with an inherent criticism of the flawed ways in which we choose to communicate and share.

Yet their content is not entirely superfluous, at least not to my stubbornly association-drawing mind. There’s something that threads through – or does it? – about aging, about death, about grief and loss. There are also subtle hints at the company’s own history and at the ever-so-lightly hinted idea that (whisper it) they might be getting too old for this. At the evening’s wearied close, the performers seem fed up with what they have created and dissembled, deeply fatigued by their own frenzied effort.

This fatigue extends to the music, which interjects, builds, reaches a crescendo and finally collapses. Introduced as just another distraction, much like the wigs and masks and costumes that are lined up on rails in a nod to the childhood game of dressing up, the music eventually emerges as an integral element that both mirrors and resists the piece’s overall shape. Rhythms are repeated and frustrated; the steady mounting of sound is truncated by a crashing halt. Storms build with the beat of a snare drum and dissolve into monotonous lulls. Even as the chaotic performance limps to a close, Cathy and Claire stand with their backs to the audience tapping out a series of final notes on the piano, notes that are sad yet optimistic.

The “melancholy optimism” with which The Coming Storm concludes seems to bleed into Sight is the Sense – though of course, as already acknowledged, this connection is heavily influenced by seeing the two shows one after the other. Sight is the Sense also feels haunted by the ghost of Gatsby, with whom Jim Fletcher is inevitably associated after the eight-hour theatrical phenomenon of Gatz, and who carries a kind of melancholic weight into the room. The piece itself, however, initially appears to be oddly light and insubstantial. Fletcher stands, scruffy and unassuming, in the bare Council Chamber, reciting a list of statements about the world. And that, in essence, is it.

These statements range from the technical to the banal, the hackneyed to the strangely profound. We’re told that “space is dark emptiness”, “love is a kind of hypnosis”, “laughter is contagious”, “capitalism will probably not last forever”. The associations tumble one after the other, occasionally snagging on their way down. It is time capsule made into text, a collection of proverb, cliche and quotation that feels saturated with the accumulated stuff of modern culture. And just like a time capsule, into which carefully selected objects are dropped, it is necessarily limited. There’s only so much room.

This is deliberately, teasingly slippery theatre. The gathering statements, though simple, are also surprisingly elusive, while neither Fletcher’s oddly mesmerising performance nor the stripped down staging give an audience much to grasp onto. In a sly, knowing move, Fletcher proceeds to tell us that “theatre is mainly pretending” and that “the job of an actor is to simulate thoughts and feelings they do not really have”, remaining all the while blandly expressionless.

This very lack of expression allows Fletcher to become a blank canvas, a generator of words onto whom we project. Meaning is continually displaced, as the lightest wry, world-weary note in Fletcher’s voice is contradicted by the naivety or optimism of his words, which might the next moment become charged with implicit cynicism or sorrow. If this is to be read as a world view, it is a contradictory, undecided one. Which, it might be argued, is the only world view that one can reasonably have in the world as it is.

This confusion and complexity is heightened by the need throughout for objects and concepts to be measured against one another in the attempt to grasp definitions. “Wickedness is the name that people once gave to evil”, or “a mirror is a defective window”. Much like in the frenzied, competitive description of the board game Articulate, lines are hastily drawn between similar or differing ideas, reinforcing Saussure’s assertion that everything in language is based on relations. We are caught in a web of constant references.

But the real beauty of the free-association form that Etchells has appropriated – a sort of distilled stream of consciousness – is that it frees our minds to float between their own associations. My initial use of the word “light” is accurate in a sense, in that the piece brings a certain intoxicating weightlessness to the room. It is in this enabling and unveiling of our own connection-making tendencies that Sight is the Sense finds its affinity with The Coming Storm, freeing our minds to roam while at the same time activating our awareness of these mental processes.

Both pieces also produce a sort of breathlessness – the first weary, the second spellbound. As a pairing, they are unexpectedly complementary in their juxtaposed tone; the crazed energy of The Coming Storm assaults the senses, while Sight is the Sense offers a reviving, hypnotic air of calm. Picking up on my own imprecise, carelessly deployed critical vocabulary, for once the frequently used word “piece” seems entirely apt. Each is a fragment composed of many smaller fragments. Like a story, itself made up of narrative jigsaw pieces, that slots into a wider cultural frame.

Gatz, Noel Coward Theatre

A small disclaimer: the performance I’m writing about was technically a preview, though Elevator Repair Service have in fact been performing this show since 2004. This also seems a slightly superfluous disclosure considering that I don’t expect what follows to be a “proper” review in any conventional sense. If either of those two statements displease you, probably best to stop reading now …

As I probably don’t need to tell you, the headline-grabbing aspect of Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, currently visiting the West End as part of LIFT 2012, is its length. A performance in which every last word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is read aloud, this sort of anti-adaptation is eight hours long. Eight hours.

Except that’s already a slight lie. Intervals factored in – including a fairly generous dinner break – this is actually more like six hours of stage time in total. And in fact, astoundingly, the length is probably one of the less extraordinary things about Gatz. People arrive prepped for an act of endurance; the group next to me seemed to have packed an entire picnic and, to my slight envy, a flask of tea. Twitter reveals more of the same, some theatregoers even arming themselves with pillows. But, with the minimal aid of caffeine top-ups, this is far less of a marathon than it appears. More of a pleasurable and mildly tiring fun run, perhaps.

The concept is brilliantly simple. A bored office worker, the staggeringly excellent Scott Shepherd (more on him later), arriving at work to find his computer on the blink, stumbles across a copy of The Great Gatsby on his desk. He begins to read, and continues to do so for the following eight (minus intervals) hours. I say read, but in a mind-boggling feat of memory, Shepherd knows the whole thing off by heart, *spoiler alert* as he stunningly proves during the final 45-minute sequence delivered entirely without the prop of the book. *end spoiler alert* Although I’d happily be lulled by Shepherd’s strangely hypnotic voice alone, he is also joined one by one by other figures in the office, who gradually take on roles within the novel.

And that, essentially, is it. Except it’s also so much more. Elevator Repair Service’s staging seems like a good place to start. The entire thing takes place in a typically stale and soulless office, naturalistically rendered down to each last biro. My immediate assumption, though this isn’t confirmed by any period-specific references, is that we’re in the late eighties or early nineties, based mainly on the appearance of Shepherd’s faulty computer. I can’t help wondering if this vague, recent-ish setting has a calculated resonance with Fitzgerald’s novel; though we’re far from the steel and glass of Wall Street, the implied era is that of the sort of greed and excess so grotesquely satirised by Caryl Churchill in Serious Money, a world not dissimilar from the pre-Crash extravagance displayed at Gatsby’s parties. The expensive calm before the storm.

Beyond the usual office paraphernalia, the only thing out of the ordinary in Louisa Thompson’s set is an onstage sound deck, which later becomes key to the subtle evocation of the world of Fitzgerald’s novel. Visually, this is the antithesis of Baz Luhrman’s forthcoming film, the trailer for which is all glitter and no grit. In the decidedly drab surroundings of Elevator Repair Service’s production, the responsibility for the glitter lays entirely with the text, which dazzles all by itself. I suspect that I was in the majority among the audience in having already read the novel, albeit several years ago, but even for those familiar with the book this is something of a journey of discovery.

The beauty of this unconventional method of staging a novel is that it becomes so much more about the literary work at its centre than any traditional adaptation ever is. Fitzgerald’s prose is both protagonist and creator; everything is born from the words. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but for such a celebrated classic The Great Gatsby has a remarkably slight plot. Condensed right down, it is essentially the classic spiky love triangle (or love square, perhaps, if we’re including Myrtle). Illicit romance, the return of an old flame, betrayal and jealousy – nothing ground-breaking. What’s more, if you’re purely focusing on events, Nick barely features, lingering perpetually on the sidelines.

All of which is exactly why Gatz works so brilliantly. There is of course so much more to Fitzgerald’s novel than a hackneyed love story and so much more to its narrator, who is revealed in the prose as a central character in his own right. In a normal adaptation much of this is lost, whereas Elevator Repair Service have not only preserved this but actually enhanced it. As Jay McInerney pointed out recently in the Observer, “Fitzgerald’s prose somehow elevates a lurid and underdeveloped narrative to the level of myth”. In reinventing the act of reading on stage, I would go as far as to suggest that Gatz elevates this (no pun intended) a level further.

The literary junkie’s ultimate high, the only way to really, accurately describe Gatz is as reading intensified. It’s that fevered devouring of a novel without all the cheating, not allowing you to skim through sections that seem unnecessary to the story, and in the process revealing those bits as absolutely necessary. Such a treatment obviously wouldn’t work for every book, but for The Great Gatsby it’s perfect, polishing every last buried gem in Fitzgerald’s language and lending his prose a heightened poetry through Shepherd’s mesmerising tones.

We also glimpse before our eyes that slipping away of the real world as the world of the book takes its grip. Piece by piece the office morphs into the glamorous parties of the twenties; hedonism is casually evoked by a fistful of papers tossed in the air, while the sounds of jazz gradually infect the stage. I was beguiled by the way in which reality and fiction are ever fluid, meshing with one another and then suddenly jarring, until by the end, *spoiler claxon* as Shepherd lays down his book, it is no longer clear which is which. In the way that only a great novel can, Fitzgerald’s world has engulfed all around it.

And as I mentioned already, we are treated to many little discoveries along the way. It may have simply been that at the age of sixteen, when I first read the novel, I was spectacularly unobservant, but this presentation of the text revealed to me several new facets of Fitzgerald’s tale. This time around, perhaps influenced by the current state of the world, the novel’s attitude to capitalism seems even more scathing. For many of the characters, love and money are almost synonymous – the attraction of Daisy’s voice is that it rings with wealth. Elevator Repair Service’s concept underlines this obsession by placing it within the context of a space where making money is the main objective, generating only monotonous drudgery. Against this dull office setting, the American Dream is just that – dreamlike, insubstantial, and incompatible with the drabness of reality.

With a jolted remembrance of Jean Baudrillard’s “hyperreal”, it suddenly seemed to me while watching that even in 1925 The Great Gatsby was oddly anticipating postmodernism, whispering of the substitution of the real with signs of the real. Nick describes how his mysterious friend experiences “the unreality of reality”; to Daisy, Gatsby – already concealed behind a false identity – resembles an advertisement; the all-seeing, bespectacled eyes of the same advertisement become an oddly sinister capitalist substitute for God; the treasured photograph of Gatsby’s lavish mansion is more real to his father than the house itself. The addition of another few layers of simulacra in the form of performance only serves to enhance this.

Which brings me back to the performance itself. Much of what I’ve written so far makes it sound as though Gatz is purely concerned with literature, but Elevator Repair Service also incisively interrogate the workings of theatre. The conventions of representation get a comical prod, as what we are offered visually often directly contradicts with what we are being told. Jim Fletcher is a particularly unlikely Gatsby in his mismatched pink suit, and there is a beautiful moment when Shepherd reads the line about girls rubbing champagne in his hair and pauses to look incredulously at the balding figure opposite him.

There is much more to Gatz than can be contained in one blog post without stretching to ridiculous lengths, but Shepherd deserves a special mention before I reluctantly leave the experience behind me. His performance would be extraordinary for the memorising of the text alone, but this is much, much more than an impressive act of recall. It’s difficult for me to pin down quite why he makes such a compelling presence, but I think the closest I can get to articulating it is that he lives the book. When he reads those final, gorgeous sentences, we don’t quite want to leave him and the story he has told behind.

Tipped out onto the pavement after several hours in the novel’s company, I felt dazed and dazzled, slowly emerging from the deep submersion of Elevator Repair Service’s storytelling, blinking against the glare of the outside world. As I finally finish writing about it almost three weeks later, it still hasn’t fully relinquished its grip on me. And that pretty much says it all.