Should We Have Stormed The Stage?

REAL MAGIC, a Forced Entertainment production, directed by Tim Etchells, with Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall, ACCA, University of Sussex, Friday 11th Nov, 7.30pm

New work should be exciting. What you always want is for the anticipation to match the experience, to see something that hits you with its originality, its relevance, its courage, that sets you back, that makes you think: ‘I couldn’t do that but I’d really like to.’ Real Magic is all this.

There is so much at the moment that seems inexplicable, obscure, unfathomable. Social media, what the hell? The Large Hadron Collider somewhere under a mountain in Switzerland (and France if you want to be pedantic): what is that exactly? A giant scientific experiment, an enormous, unimaginably complex machine for doing exactly the same thing over and over again, exploring infinitesimal variations in outcomes.

Not so dissimilar to Real Magic. A kind of entertainment or performance machine, set up under the most stringent, most rigorous, scientific conditions, to examine that most elusive of materials, popular culture, mass entertainment, variety, magic tricks as diversion, music hall, that which takes us out of ourselves, which we don’t have to think too hard about. We know what it is, right? It makes us laugh. But what is that, to laugh? To be entertained?

We are all very accustomed to television variety, game shows, talent shows, Strictly Come Dancing, cooking shows. The entertainment is in the repetition. We know exactly what to expect, and we always get it. Over and over again.

The medium isn’t the message. The medium has no message. The medium is a machine, endlessly, madly repeating, once started can’t be stopped.

Inside this machine are people, performers, actors. What does it do to these people, the raw material, the stuff that feeds the machine?

Actors in a play, particles in a collider, doomed to repetition, time after time. Particles have characteristics, identities which can be transformed under certain conditions. People too, have identities, which can transform, evolve, co-exist.

What does it achieve, this experiment, this repetition? What can we learn, what does it reveal? Should we, the audience, have stormed the stage and put a stop to it? Carried off the performers, been their friends? Is it our responsibility to resist the machine? To smash it up, Luddites of entertainment?

With every new machine comes a new threat to our independence, to our humanity, to our existence, in no way a joking matter. This year marks the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a gigantic machine for producing dead bodies.

The Internet, the World Wide Web, streamed entertainment, a world encompassing, world enclosing, world devouring machine with an appetite to match: it can swallow every book ever published in one tiny mouthful.

Those who submit themselves to the machine, the entertainers, assume a public identity. They know the rules, they have applied for the job of tending the machine and have received the training. They know how to remain safe, how to keep their fingers out of the dangerous moving parts.

They’ve made a pact with the devil, taken the pieces of silver and have submitted, their public selves the servants of the machine and their private selves are their own business. At the end of the day they’re free to go home, read a book, watch television, do some gardening, play with their children.

And what year were you born in again?

The machine is no longer happy just with public identities. The machine is insidiously encroaching on our private selves.

We watch Real Magic, the three performers, working, working, harder and harder, the struggle becoming more and more desperate. What are they doing? Why are they working so hard, working just to keep doing the same thing, why the desperation, why the urgency, why not just give in?

They are fighting, struggling to protect their identities, their private selves, their essence.

Real Magic is a very clever play. It’s very tricky. The audience is seduced into thinking that it wants, we want, to see the performers’ private, innermost selves. We want them to submit, to exhibit their real feelings, their characters. But the entertainment, the humour, the humanity, the joy, is in watching them resist, fight to the finish, never giving up.

This play has both visceral impact and intellectual rigour. The acting is extraordinarily disciplined, yet utterly committed and very moving, and very funny, surprising and imaginative. The lighting and sound, in creating the setting, produce an atmospheric, and in some ways quite frightening ambiance. The laughter and applause tracks are both alienating and engaging, bringing us on and taking us off, create a magical response, a longing for fulfilment but a lurking unease.

There is something deeply unsettling about the way social media seems to encourage inappropriate private behaviour in the public domain. It’s very encouraging, refreshing even, to see a play which engages with issues which are not yet even fully understood, much less seen as dangerous or threatening.

Paul Corcoran