‘Spectacular’ Programme Note by Tim Etchells

When the actor plays dead no one’s fooled for a moment.

We’ve long been gripped by the strange game of playing dead; that particular absurd edge of theatre in which the performers are charged with approaching the one thing, which above all others perhaps, can’t ever be convincingly represented. When we’re at the theatre after all, once all the drama and exertions of the death scene are done, the actor is always still breathing as she lies there on the floor. Always still breathing, eyes closed and waiting patiently for the curtain call. No-one’s fooled. No-one’s taken in. Doesn’t matter how much fake blood, how much yelling, how much sobbing, how much stillness. No one thinks this is real.

But at the same time there remains a strange charge to this game, a cultural and emotional electricity which crackles and sparks the air around the actor who lives-but-dies, or who lives but plays dead. The death scene. The appearance of the ghost. The appearance of death himself. As if the patent absurdity of these things – acknowledged, known by all – always contains nonetheless a flicker, shimmer, crack or opening to some other possibility. Like kids fooling with a Ouija board, intent on scaring themselves, we’ve been back around this again and again, always approaching from different angles, with different intensities, unable to let it be. We’ve been dying from the early shows like Let The Water.. with its glorious competition of tomato-ketchup movie deaths right through to the later works like Bloody Mess with its blank diva-death at the centre, a scene which Cathy claims with comical bombast will “break something inside you forever”. No one’s fooled. But still we come back – as a culture  and as a group of artists – waiting till there’s no one around, drawing the curtains and starting to play dead again.

Spectacular, for its part, is two deaths sat side by side. One unexpectedly chatty and cheery, if somewhat philosophical, prone to distraction. The other agonised, exaggerated, abject and highly theatrical. The drama of these two together is something we were pulled to in rehearsals – a discovery that remained puzzling, upsetting, compelling in the months of devising. Each of these deaths – the theatrical emotional and the pantomime thoughtful – has its own comedy, and each its own seriousness, as if the performance wants us poised on a knife edge, balanced but unstable on the weird border of gravity and farce.

At the same time, right next to these comical, serious and unimaginable deaths, Spectacular concerns itself with another kind of absence. The stage is bare for the performance and much of what we’re watching in its hour and fifteen minutes is, simply speaking, not there. Instead it’s a performance which explores the possibility of language – of  how words can work to summon events, describing things, and, in a certain way, making them happen. What’s spoken in performance after all hovers, gains tangibility, and with the imaginative participation of an audience begins to appear.

Spectacular is in many ways a simple piece with its two deaths braided around each other, but a constant binary of emotions and thoughts which gets more complex the longer you stare at it, and which we hope creates something at the same time fragile, vivid and visceral.

Tim Etchells
Sheffield, 2008.