“What if the stage was haunted by all the things that happened on it?”| 23 October 2023
‘How Goes the World’ is the fifth part in the NTGent series Histoire(s) du Théâtre, in which established artists reflect on theatre as an art form. Am I right to say that’s exactly what you have been doing for the past 40 years?
Tim Etchells: “For sure, theatre itself has always been a topic for me. I’ve concerned myself with the questions: What is it? How does it work? And why is it so magical and cruel at the same time?”
“The work I’ve made in the past decades has somehow always reflected on what it means to stand in front of people on a stage, present as a real person but also doing things that are fictional. Let’s be honest, it’s a very strange profession! For me though, digging into the theatre, also involves a reflection on who we are as people and the world we live in. Theatre might be about the mechanics of pretending and play acting - and therefore about itself - but at the same time, it’s unavoidably about life as well. As human beings we are performing to ourselves, to other people, even the space that we live in is already a performance. When you make something about theatre – about what’s real or not - you automatically talk about the world.”
This performance is not the first one you created in Belgium. How strong is your connection to the Belgian art scene and public?
“Belgium had always been very important, both for me and for Forced Entertainment [the company Tim Etchells co-founded in 1984 of which he is still the artistic leader]. It was one of the first places we went as a young company. When we had only made a few pieces, we got invited by STUK in Leuven, by Beursschouwburg Brussels, Monty in Antwerp and by the Nieuwpoort theatre in Ghent. Very early on, we felt a strong connection to the Belgian scene. So yes, it feels exactly right and very exciting to be making another piece here.”
“I don’t especially see myself as a playwright, I see myself as someone who works with other artists to create theatre. The sense that theatre can be made in a rehearsal rooms by equals; that’s something that’s very present in the Belgian scene as well. And I guess Brits and Flemings share a love for slightly dry and absurd humour as well.”
‘How Goes the World’ is a performance driven by a range of sound cues to which the performers are constantly reacting, often seemingly without knowing why. Something that’s both very comical and unsettling at the same time. How did you come up with this idea?
“I am fascinated by the idea of a collective memory build up in audience members, actors and venues over many years. What if the stage was haunted by all of the things that have happened on it? What if the stage was haunted by the sound cues, or by the music, that’s been played on it?”
“How Goes the World is made up of fragments of remembered, or rather almost forgotten, performances. It’s a recycling bin in which many things have ended up in, and we’re swirling it around. The people in the piece, rather figures than characters, inhabit this world where the sound is constantly arriving and telling them to do something. Pick up the phone, play the piano, answer the door… there’s a sense that they become puppets to the machinery of the sound.”
What’s the meaning behind this choice? What is the play trying to tell us?
“For me, theatre is a machine. It needs to produce events, tension, something that is happening or going to happen… the way we use the sounds refers to the relentless desire of theatre to create urgency. To change the situation.”
“There’s something rather cruel about theatre. In this performance, the actors become puppets to the sound score, and as a public we know we won’t be happy until they are exhausted and almost can’t carry on.”
“At the same time, this kind of machinery reflects how we live our lives. Life as well as theatre has its pressures – it is structured by cues, demands and interventions in the space we inhabit. So although How Goes the World is about theatre, it’s also about the great machinery of capitalism that is constantly prodding and stimulating us to be passionately doing this, that or the other.”
“Producing a deeply profound performance with materials that seem poor at first sight, is a lifelong project”
An article in the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles described you last summer as “possibly the funniest guy in the UK”. Humour and absurdity have always been a big part of your work. How much humour is there in ‘How Goes The World’ and what purpose does it serve?
“My work can be ridiculous or even stupid at times, but proudly so. If you can be funny and suck people into the performance, you get an opportunity to confuse them. Suddenly you turn a corner and what was funny becomes tragic or disturbing… I’m obsessed with that uneasy flickering between being funny, and then seconds later making the work awkward, painful or upsetting. It’s a shift that makes you question yourself as a viewer: Hey, how am I responding to this, and why?”
“The humour is never an end in itself, it’s part of a complicated game we are playing with the audience. What we want to do with this piece, as with other projects of mine, is make something where the material can be frothy or light, almost nothing at times. And meanwhile the play can be very complex, emotionally and philosophically entangled. That’s the ambition anyway!”
Probably this is also the reason why many of your projects have a minimalist scenography?
“Starting from small things or not so fancy materials, is saying: ‘we are on the same level as you, dear audience’. Nothing fancy, it’s just what it is. That way, you bring people on and can take them on a journey more easily. It’s a classic manoeuvre, isn’t it, where you say: ‘look, this isn’t very much’, ‘this is nothing really’, and then you try to work it in a magical way into something the audience couldn’t have expected from the initial proposition.”
In the piece, there’s a role for what you might call background figures: archetypical characters like doctors, mailmen, firefighters… why did you decide to put them in the spotlights?
“Drama can be about the protagonists and central narrative figures, but it’s interesting to look across the stage at the background figures – the ones in excess of what’s necessary. What is it to be there on stage dressed as a butler in a scene with nothing much to do… or as an ‘extra’ in a crowd scene? It’s funny but there’s a pathos about it too. It’s a tension I love.”
“One of the big dynamics in How Goes the World is that we create scenes in which all the performers are extremely busy, but then the machinery stops. All of a sudden the performers are just there, and you can look at them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes. As fellow human beings. Theatre can do this extremely powerfully: bringing us together in a shared space, in which we can hear and see each other breath. There’s a huge strength, a shared vulnerability and fragility when the machine stops.”
“Theatre can be a cruel machinery. But when the machine stops, a beautiful vulnerability appears”
Besides a theatre maker, you are also a writer and a visual artist. Do you sometimes feel stretched in combining these very different art forms?
“I have been creating visual art pieces with neon and led lights since about 2008, I make installations and works that either go in galleries, or in public space, on the outside of buildings for example. These days, I tend to think that everything I do, is fully connected. It’s all part of the same practice. A neon piece of mine might only consist of eight words, but even then you are thinking about the possible interactions it can have with people visiting the gallery or crossing it in the street. The task, also in theatre, is always manipulating material in order to form relations, ask questions or open spaces.”
What’s next for you, after this project?
“With Forced Entertainment, we are making a new production that will open in April 2024 to celebrate our 40th anniversary. It’s incredibly rich and extraordinary to have spent all of this time working together. Its an amazing resource, we have this shared language, this shared history, and a very valuable collaborative ethos.”
As a kid, you felt theatre was both compelling and horrifying. How do you feel about it after almost 40 years of theatre making?
“I have exactly this relationship of loving and hating theatre. Being very compelled and amazed by it’s possibilities but also finding it tyrannous and weird. Fascination really. Still, after 40 years.”
Has it gotten any easier to make after four decades?
“In many ways, it’s gotten harder. But there’s something about throwing yourself into the materials and letting them circulate in your brain that I just love. I was up at 4am this morning, wide awake, madly having ideas of how to push How Goes the World further. It’s a rush that doesn’t stop until you’ve opened the show.”
--- interview by Jonas Mayeur / credit photo: Hugo Glendinning
“Creating a new piece in Belgium feels exciting and exactly right. From the very start of Forced Entertainment, Belgium has played an important role.”