The U.S. has been fascinated by reality television, yet what is often broadcast on such programs is hardly "reality" at all: desert island competitions, glorified talent shows, and of course, sappy dating programs. Reality TV might not be "real," but it can often make for entertaining and surprisingly compelling viewing. The same can unfortunately not be said for the U.S. premiere of British Theatre Company Forced Entertainment's new show Instructions for Forgetting, which provides its own examination into the connection among reality, video, storytelling, and culture.
Written and performed by Tim Etchells, the evening is constructed of various stories and amateur/hand-held videos sent to Tim by friends. For this project, Etchells gave his friends few instructions, only asking that the materials sent to him should be true and short reports of things that have happened in the world. The resulting images and stories are predictably diverse: tales of going to the movies with a young child, images of women stripping, stories of life in West Africa, a video of the ocean, excerpts from news broadcasts, kangaroos fighting; the materials run the gamut.
What Etchells doesn't realize is that sometimes the mundane is just that - mundane, absent of deeper meaning. This fact is brought home during a sequence in the show in which the screens are filled with video "snow" and static. Etchells tells us that what we are watching is a tape he received in the mail and which he has scanned for content, thinking that there might be something on it, either video or audio. Although he is informed by a tech service that the tape is blank, Etchells is convinced that there must be something to be gleaned from the tape and so he watches obsessively. Nothing ever turns up, but he decides to show the video anyway as a "break" or "pause" for the audience.
This sequence is unfortunately representative of most of the evening, a sad case of the Emperor's New Clothes, trying to make meaning where little exists. The project isn't without ambition; clearly there is much one could say about the role of image and storytelling in current society. However, the videos and materials that Etchells has at his disposal, in all of their unextraordinariness, rather than serving as productive fodder for an intriguing evening, ultimately limit what the piece can say and do. The result is a pretentious and academic-feeling postmodern mess that fails to coalesce into a meaningful whole.
The show is further hindered by Etchells's monotonous and droning speaking voice, which fails to fully inhabit the stories he tells. To say that the show is "performed" would be an exaggeration. Seated at a table center stage and surrounded by three video monitors and a control operator (Vlatka Horvat) in the background, the show is extremely static and lacks a sense of theatricality. Etchells reads from a script on the table, which only contributes to the slowness of the piece. Considering that many of the stories that Etchells tells are ostensibly interesting as they deal with issues of war, life, death, and the occasional bit of humor, the fact that they are delivered in the same soporific manner reduces the evening to a textureless and flat recitation.
What's especially disappointing is that the accompanying video (with design by Richard Lowdon and video work by Hugo Glendinning) is equally dull. Occasionally the videos tie into the stories that Etchells recounts, but other times it is just images without narrative action. Sometimes the videos are speeded up, other times they are freeze-framed or trapped in a repeating loop. In a show in which not much happens either on stage or on screen, it's hard to maintain interest in this intermissionless hour and a half evening.
The show's fleeting moments of true entertainment can only be found in two extended video sequences. The first is of a young boy poorly performing magic tricks, inadvertently revealing all of his "magic" to the audience's delight and amusement. The second video sequence which is an excerpt from a real news report involves the grotesque yet hysterically funny destruction of a whale carcass by dynamite which turns out to be quite engrossing in all of its disgusting detail. Yet despite the humor of these two clips, these segments don't contribute to the work as a unified whole.
Instructions for Forgetting needs a stronger hand to get across the piece's message of the relationship among image, story, and world politics. As Etchells says of one of his videos, "The tape is mind-numbing in its emptiness." Such is the case of Instructions for Forgetting, and sadly, Forced Entertainment has accomplished what its title indicates, the construction of a show that is utterly forgettable.
Theater for a New City (P.S. 122)