Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sophie Calle's Exquisite Pain

The British theatre company Forced Entertainment are not too keen on performing plays. Instead, they tend to devise their brand of experimental, confrontational entertainment from the most unexpected sources. Their 1999 show, Quizoola!, for example, featured three actors who made their way through 2000 quiz questions for an audience who were “free to leave” and, indeed, to come back during the piece’s 6-hour duration.

So when the company, after twenty years in existence, finally decided to perform a text it is not surprising that it wasn’t Hamlet. Instead, artistic director, Tim Etchells and his company have chosen to create a stage version of something that began life as an exhibition of photographs from French artist, Sophie Calle.

Calle, a photographer who has made spying and the surveillance of strangers a mainstay of her work, has also carved a substantial reputation in the art world, not least for pre-empting Big Brother by a couple of decades.

One of her most famously audacious works involved an account of her stalking a handsome man she met at a party halfway across Europe. But chances are she would not be half as well-know if she hadn’t permitted herself (and her work) to be blended into the American writer, Paul Auster’s novel, Leviathan.

Calle and Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment have now come together in a performance that those who have seen it on the British and German legs of its tour, suggest is anything but easy going, but undeniably rewarding.

In 2004, Calle published a book of photographs and texts from an exhibition she had stage centring on a particularly traumatic break-up she had endured 20 years earlier, which she describes as “the time that they suffered the most.”

Together with her own reminiscences on the affair, she mixed in other people’s similar accounts of heartbreak and suffering, to create what Etchells describes as a sort of pub conversation, with everybody attempting to out-do each other with their stories of exquisite pain. Now, with the help of two actors, all those stories of love, loss and carrying on are told over the course of a two-hour performance. Chances are, it probably won’t be competing for its audience with I, Keano. But then again, that’s hardly its job.

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