Preview: The Thrill of It All

Tim Etchells of theatre company Forced Entertainment tells Andy Murray about their new playful, experimental piece of work

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Twenty-six years after they first formed, you might reasonably expect the Forced Entertainment company to have become a cosy part of Britain’s theatrical landscape. Not a bit of it. Their work still excels in challenging and unsettling audiences.

Their latest venture, The Thrill Of It All again defies expectations, or indeed easy explanation. Suffice it to say that what starts out as a skewed, good-natured kind of variety show with dancers and comperes eventually descends into chaos and violence. We Will Rock You it isn’t.

According to director Tim Etchells, the show marks a departure for the company in two important respects. “One is that we’re working with modulating the actors’ voices with microphone effects so that they don’t sound like they normally sound. You don’t hear a single voice unaltered on the stage.

It was a little part of a show called Void Story that we did last year, but it’s quite a major element of this one. The other thing is working with movement and with dance. We’ve occasionally used ridiculous or comical dance before, but it’s the first time we’ve ever plunged into that territory to quite this extent.”

It was this intention to explore these techniques in detail that provided the initial germ for The Thrill Of It All. “Sometimes we can go into the studio with absolutely no clue at all what we’re doing – but on this occasion we did have loads of thoughts about the kind of thing we wanted to try. Those were only the starting points though. Pretty quickly that evolved into this particular idea of a variety show that unravels.”

Since their debut performance project Jessica In The Room of Lights back in December 1984, Forced Entertainment has consisted of a core group of six artists based in Sheffield. They record their initial improvisations and whittle away at the results to create each new show. Recent projects such as Void Story and Spectacular have been tightly focused, minimalist affairs but The Thrill Of It All deploys a relatively larger cast. Bringing in performers from outside the team can pose problems though.

“It is tricky,” Etchells says. “Obviously we’ve been working together as a group for a long time and we have quite a developed process of talking about what we’re doing and the tone of it. This time we did have to go through a rather laborious audition process to find other performers. It is hard, but it’s also really good for us, I think. It means we have to behave ourselves a bit better. Also new people tend to bring something, well, new. They shift what we’re doing, and that’s great, actually.”

In essence, though, Forced Entertainment try to maintain an objective look at the theatrical experience. “The work as a whole is still a kind of investigation about theatre, what theatre can do, quite how theatre talks to you, what the nature of the experience is. In a way with every project we’re trying to answer that question.”

Over the years, though, their approach to this question has continued to evolve. “Maybe you have to look harder to find a different angle, but the other thing is that you get braver. When I look at our early shows they seem like they’re scampering around trying to find something to get a bit of everything in. And what I love about the work that we’ve done more recently is we get an idea and we think: ‘Yeah, we’ll stick with that for the next hour. We’ll really push on that.’ That sort of thing can only come from confidence, really.”

Forced Entertainment has a keen following in continental Europe. The Thrill Of It All debuted in May as part of the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels, and returns to the UK direct from dates at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Is it possible that the rest of Europe embraces challenging performance work more easily, and that UK audiences are less adventurous by comparison?

“I think audiences here are really up for the sort of work we make, which is great, but it’s certainly the case that the theatre scene as a whole is a little bit more conservative here, compared with how it is in Belgium or Germany. You have to kick to make a statement in the UK. There is a sense of battle here.

I think it’s got better, but I still feel that you’ve got to really push to make the kind of work that we do.”

The Thrill of It All, 12-13 October, Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster.

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