Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Real Magic – a study in stuckness for our time (Belfast International Arts Festival 22-23 Oct) #BIAF19

We’re living through a period of British, Irish and European politics in which no matter how the question or answer is phrased, there is deadlock. We’re stuck in a loop of borders, backstops, proposals, resignations, prorogations, defections, deadlines, and yet they all lead to no deal and another round of futile pushing the large square peg into the small circular hole.

Outside of Brexit – if anything can truly be untainted with the dark, Dante-like black hole that absorbs much of the joy from modern living – our economic system in the west bounces from boom to recession and back, with the poor remaining poor, the rich remaining comfortably affluent, and the vulnerable being taken advantage off by the powerful, while the stock market swings, house prices wobble and even bankers have their bad days among the good.

So the scene depicted on the simple stage by three artists from Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment is very familiar. Their setting is a gameshow. A simple task. Childs play for one person to think of a word and another to guess what it is. Having three chances seems fair to everyone. And then they swap around. And the loop is rerun, never twice the same, yet never deviating from the predictable result, never cognisant of the detail of previous rounds, yet the ripples affect their mood and behaviour.

Real Magic is a study in stuckness, devised in 2016 before the UK truly became stuck in a quagmire everyone wants to leave but seems set to remain in buried up to its neck. A study in being trapped in a decision loop unable to break free from the mistake you’ve made before. Of messing up on purpose. Of having the answer on a plate but still throwing away victory from the jaws of defeat. Of the power of asking questions. And the power of answering them.

It’s an exhausting experience for the three performers: chicken suits and theatre lights are a sure-fire way to lose weight through perspiration. It’s also an exhausting experience for the audience, who are witnesses to this 90-minute looping, unable to break through the fourth wall to rescue the situation, equally trapped in this piece of endurance theatre.

Each spirited performer has their own personality and set of traits. Claire (Marshall) is the tactile one, and the most frustrated. Richard (Lowdon) is over-enthusiastic, the most visibly disappointed as his failure, and the most likely to throw in a sci-fi reference. Gerry (Killick) is the most playful, the most easily distracted.

Just as the cast play with emphasis and different ways of voicing each round, canned applause , laughter and some very sinister techno interrogation music play with the emotional disposition of everyone in the theatre. (The sound was designed by the director Tim Etchells.)

There’s an absurdity to the situation that makes some audience members giggle and guffaw. Others begin to sigh as they realise that they have lost count of how many circles of hell there are in this artistic version of water torture. Some lean forward, feeling the changing waves of energy as the performers vary the speed and intensity of their scene. And some lie back in their seats and relax, smiling at the perplexing confusion (“the only winning move is not to play” as the the movie WarGames taught us all). After a period of figuratively rolling my eyes and checking my watch, I found myself grinning through my brokenness, willing the performers on as they discovered new ways to bash their heads off the wall and fail to solve the impossible equation in front of them.

Much like Brexit, I can’t spoil the ending. The reality is that the ending is out of our control, and yet our hearts already know what is going to happen and nothing can change it!

Real Magic is part of Belfast International Arts Festival and will be performed – 100 minutes, no interval – in The MAC on Tuesday 22 and Wednesday 23 October at 7.45pm. Check out my festival preview for details of other performances to look out for.

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