Each of the long pieces Forced Entertainment have made exists, in the first place, as a simple set rules that at the same time limit, define and generate possibilities. From such a starting point and within such a frame the performers are improvising – working and playing together to create something – pushing at the edges of what’s possible inside the restrictions to hand. You hear and see the content of the work, but you also see the labour, the inventiveness and the struggle with the rules.
In And on the Thousandth Night… the rules in question are focused on stories and the piece functions as a kind of generative engine, a human story-telling machine, designed to make, break and re-make stories of all kinds.
On the stage eight performers dressed in the make-shift red cloaks and cardboard crowns of some childhood performance, improvise stories that range from fairy tales, to recycled movie plots, absurd thrillers and horror stories, to coming-of-age tales, mysteries, hard-luck stories and office romances. The main rule (and arguably the only important one) is that no story told as part of the performance is ever allowed to finish, a logic of fragmentation that quickly enshrines what you might call a kind of cut-throat playfulness at the heart of the proceedings.
It’s the playfulness that defines And on the Thousandth Night.., especially when combined with the edge that improvising has for both spectators and performers alike – the knowledge that this could all come crashing down at any moment. In fact a good deal of the fun in this work, as in other long improvised pieces that the company have done, is in seeing the performers make less-than-perfect decisions and then have to deal with the consequences. Since the stories can only stopped by another player’s interjection it’s more than possible to find oneself obliged to keep on telling a story that is already stretched thin, running out of steam. Players often start stories on a whim – a story about a robotic poet that works in a dry cleaners, why not? a story about an elephant that wants to learn to sing, sure – but what seems like a workable premise at the moment of starting can easily get sticky if you’re forced to continue too long.
The piece teeters between its evident absurdity and it’s generative energy whilst the tiredness of the players over its marathon duration contributes both to the difficulty of the struggle and the inventiveness of the solutions they find. At four and five in the morning the brain clutches at strange straws, and the logic of the narratives in the pieces bends, decays, transforms. As it unfolds And on the Thousandth Night… throws up stories about kings and queens, talking mice, nightclub singers, heavy metal roadies, murderers, sex maniacs, politicians, carpet sellers and business people at sales conferences. In fact a jumbled horde of from the whole of human life is there in some form or another, out of place and in no particular order. Watching and listening you encounter world made of stories, and a human race, defined amongst other things as a kind a story machine. There’s a great pleasure in watching the failures as well as in the successes – and that’s the secret really, to see people working, thinking, playing. No script, no safety net. Just a handful of rules, liveness, language and the moment.
Tim Etchells, 2018