Dirty Work (The Late Shift), Battersea Arts Centre

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by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice

Esteemed company Forced Entertainment fill the council chamber of Battersea’s old town hall with an enthused audience who laugh and snigger at the text presented to them. The performers are framed by a false, red curtained, proscenium arch that forms, like the show itself a facade: a description of something without being either of itself or the thing it describes. An hour and fifteen minutes runs with Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden taking turns to speak.

In a reworking of their 1998 performance Dirty Work, this piece relies on the imagination of the viewers to create a virtual show whist challenging them to imagine a cacophony of random spectacles via a banal and minimal use of language. The use of vocabulary is intentionally bland, as is the controlled and limited dynamic of the story telling. The pair reel off describing sentences one after the other that refer to a constantly changing set of circumstances and scenarios. A third figure, Terry O’Connor, sits behind them at a table, controlling a sound score on a record player that fades in and out for various sections.

The duo’s speaking style is painfully smug throughout with a tightly controlled dynamic and an irritatingly chirpy air. The entire script is simply listed in the third person, present tense, objectifying both what they are doing and the idea of what they doing. The one line descriptions are detailed and sarcastic, both knowing and naive. From circus acts going wrong to all the possible and impossible ways to die, the audience is bombarded by ever changing, juxtaposing images with little sense of linear time or continuity. The performers acknowledge how time passes in their own show, breaking the fourth wall then telling us that they have done so, describing how the audience respond, constantly referring to us, to the event, to the world from inside the safety of the theatre.

By deconstructing a series of experiences into a list of events stated as fact and putting them into contrasting, comical and irregular contexts, expectations surrounding interpretation are disrupted. Playing with semantics denies all logic and challenges the viewer to search for links or patterns that might lead to satire, puns or alternative meanings. It is only once that search has been exhausted that I experience the piece for the simplicity of what it is in that moment. It is here that the tedium of the text becomes the next challenge to endure.

The content is often dark, focusing around death and the seemingly bizarre responses in people to theatrical death scenes. This can be somewhat despairing, inviting the audience to question the meaning of the entire world, not just this play. Prompting a mini existential crisis is a symptom of post war absurdist theatre which Forced Entertainment make current through their monotonous dialogue. In a world where fake news, propaganda, marketing and the phenomenon of post truth are unnervingly prevalent, a show that highlights the absurdity of spectacle and what we enjoy as both theatre and experience in the everyday can be subtly applied to a socio-political commentary if you look hard enough. By presenting spectacle as daily life and daily life as spectacle, the descriptions of events appear more and more stupid and irrelevant eventually losing all meaning entirely. Unfortunately this is a commentary accessible only to the most patient of audiences and those who have a prior knowledge of the type of work that Forced Entertainment champion.

Dirty Work (The Late Shift) runs through 1 July.

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