Director: Tim Etchells
Reviewer: Lizz Clark
Art meets theatre in Real Magic, a show in which one scene is repeated over and over, with seemingly infinite variation. Claire Marshall, Jerry Killick and Richard Lowdon are trying to perform a mind-reading act, but it doesn’t work. They switch roles, perform the same act with minor variations, and it doesn’t work again – in exactly the same way. And so on.
The key here is not the story itself, but the way that this versatile and expressive cast vary the repetitions, as if they are holding up a series of funhouse mirrors, distorting and shifting the picture. Although apparently random, with canned laughter, dramatic music, and ticking clocks playing at odd times, the action is in fact, a tightly choreographed dance of absurdity. Within are seemingly infinite nuances of hope, depression, hilarity, certainty, irritation, and ultimately, defeat.
Of course, there is some satire of the TV gameshow genre (“that’s a great answer… but it’s wrong”) and the entertainment industry as a whole. At one point, Marshall embodies the archetypical ‘glamorous assistant’; later, Lowdon performs hosting duties with the cheeky chappie energy of Ant or Dec. In other variations, references and subtext are less clear. Why are they putting on and taking off chicken costumes? What is the significance of Killick’s long black wig? Why is the scene sometimes rushed and other times so drawn-out that it loops out of being funny, then back into it again?
Real Magic dances (in a chicken suit) on the border between meaning and meaninglessness. Though the scenes run the gamut of emotions and interpersonal dynamics, we never learn the stakes of the game, the setting, or anything about the characters. It begs the question of how little narrative content a 100-minute show may have – or, how far can an idea (and an audience) be pushed?
It’s also an experiment in oblique subtext. Though the programme mentions Brexit, globalisation, and austerity, the political commentary in the show is so subtle that it’s invisible to the naked eye. Those looking for political subtext will find some – but only because the endless interpretation and re-interpretation of Real Magic allows us to see whatever we want to see. Yes, in some ways we’re all trapped playing a losing game with obscure rules and failure inevitable. But aside from death, the enemy common to us all, it’s unclear what the show is commenting upon – capitalism, sexism, imperialism, Brexit? Insert your favourite evil here.
Yet it’s fascinating to watch this twisting, flexing scene, which brings up so many emotions but refuses to specify the meaning behind its warping surface. We laugh; we care; we stop caring again out of boredom; at times, we audibly groan in annoyance or sigh with relief. At every moment, we can choose whether to puzzle out what it might mean, or simply surrender to the bizarre journey on which we’ve all been taken.
Forced Entertainment are playing a game of signs and signals, meaning and metaphor; they hop from one idea to the next, refusing to land on solid ground. Frustrating and strange as that may be, it’s undoubtedly thought-provoking, and raises so many questions about how meaning is created and shared between theatre-makers and audience. Just don’t expect any of them to be answered.
Runs until 30th November 2017 | Image: Hugo Glendenning