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Tim Etchells - Real Magic, Forced Entertainment and Edinburgh International Festival

When Tim Etchells and the Forced Entertainment company began to make their most recent show, Real Magic, they didn't know what they would end up with. This is par for the course for the Sheffield-based company, and has been since they first got together in the mid 1980s to produce a very English form of avant-garde performance that bridged live art and theatre. As Real Magic took on a life of its own during a painful devising process, it looked to the cheesy schmaltz of TV game shows, complete with looped applause, canned laughter and a botched mind reading game that looks like it might never end.

“It's about people who are trapped in something,” says Etchells, as he reflects on the show prior to its EIF dates, “and whether they can change that structure that they're trapped in. It's also one of those shows from us where we take something very frothy and light and sort of trash in a way. We work it and work it, and make cracks in it, and try and turn it into something else, taking material that on the face of it is a little bit disposable, and then try and see if you can make a really great piece of poetry or art out of it just by insisting.”

Insisting has been pretty much Etchells and Forced Entertainment's raison d'etre since the company began after being inspired by the likes of Impact Theatre, Pina Bausch and the Wooster Group. Since then, the same core artistic team of six has remained defiantly in place, touring the world with shows such as Club of No Regrets, Speak Bitterness, Bloody Mess and Spectacular. As the titles suggest, the company's work comes from a very personal root. As with a previous show that looked in part at TV game shows, Quizoola!, Real Magic has a wider significance.

“What's interesting about it,” says Etchells, “is that it never mentions Brexit, Trump or anything about the contemporary moment, but I think everybody who sees it understands it's a portrait of and a probing into this particular moment of stuckness that we're all in for one reason or another. There's really big questions that we have about how, despite all of our desires to change things, to live differently and to have different possibilities, the structures that we inhabit are so good at keeping us in place. So although the work doesn't make anything explicit about that, it's really quickly understood as a metaphor for these bigger situations that we're trapped in.”

The success of Real Magic has seen it named one of the ten best stage productions to be seen in Berlin. For a company as left-field as Forced Entertainment, such acclaim beyond the avant-garde bubble has taken Etchells and co somewhat by surprise.

“I think it's probably one of the bravest things we've ever done,” says Etchells. “It takes impulses and ideas that have been there before, but it pushes them much further. We were really quite concerned about it in what was a very difficult process. Even a couple of weeks before the premiere, I was unsure if we could really make it work as a thing, because it's so insistent on this micro-drama of this game show, and it doesn't let up with that. We've just been really pleased by the reactions to it, and in the way audiences understand what it's about, even though it's very in-explicit.”

While a Forced Entertainment begins with a blank slate, after thirty-two years working so intimately together, a considerable amount of baggage is unavoidable.

“We're haunted by everything we've done,” says Etchells. “We have thirty-two years worth of experience, ideas, action and arguments. We're always re-negotiating that, and the work that we do very fundamentally comes from and is about people and bodies in space. It's not about a lot of stuff on paper. It's about being. When we start work on a show, the moment of sitting down in the studio with the group and whatever guests we might have, it is very frightening, because the table's empty, the paper's empty, the room's empty, and there's nothing. That doesn't get less terrifying. Or less exciting.

Real Magic, The Studio, August 22-27, 7pm, August 26, 1pm.
www.eif.co.uk

The Herald, August 22nd 2017

ends

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