A man and a woman stand on a wooden pallet, backed by a string of coloured globes on an otherwise unremarkable stage. They talk us through images of the future.
There is sufficient room on the pallet for each of the pair to have their own personal space, and yet he leans up against her, shoulder to shoulder, his slight height advantage causing him to bear down. This forced closeness is, he says, a demonstration of how perhaps, one day, there will be so many people in the world that the concept of personal space will disappear. It will be like the Tube at rush hour, but all the time.
‘Or,’ she postulates in response, ‘there won’t be any men, in the future.’
Alone but for the sound of his own voice, a man sits with his legs tucked under a desk, too small for the persona he is about to reveal. He leans into a microphone and releases a torrent of words. He’s outside the school gates. He’s at dinner with his girlfriend’s parents and her chain-smoking mouse. He’s walking around the world, barefoot over broken glass. He’s in a car hurtling down an American highway. He’s words words words, read from a diminishing script, whispered and screamed, so fast you can barely keep up.
In Tomorrow’s Parties, Forced Entertainment surveys possible futures our world could face: worlds without insects, or run by insects; worlds where everyone lives for hundreds of years, worlds where people regularly die in their twenties and thirties; worlds where children are the most valued people on earth, worlds where children are bread to be organ donors. Performed at the Sydney Festival by Cathy Naden and Jerry Killick, under director Tim Etchells, it’s presented partly as a game of one-upmanship, and partly as an exercise in collaboration – between the actors on stage and, silently, with the audience.
Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die looks backwards on a concocted autobiography, telling of a past filled with surrealist images and absurdist tangents. It’s a tirade against life, against language, against adventure for the sake of adventure. But then, it is simultaneously a celebration of life, of language, of adventure for the sake of adventure. Bailey rallies against words and their meanings, against misogyny, against classism; but he cannot help displaying these same qualities. Such is the nature of language.
There is little by way of design in these two productions. The sets are simple, the costumes are mere clothes. In each, the subtlest manipulations of lighting (the work of Richard Lowdon and Sherry Coenen respectively) draw us in to the performance as the lights contract. We are swept into the powerful words and language these two works lean on.
In both, words are intricately crafted and tightly scripted, yet treated as though they are disposable: Bailey dresses his work up as a reading; Forced Entertainment dresses its work up as improvisation. In the implicit presentation of Tomorrow’s Parties as a spontaneous production, every sentence seems to be created in the moment, and so every show would be filled with new imagined futures. Can credence be given to any future, when its images disappear with the next response, never to be heard again? In contrast, Bailey’s script lets us into the truth of its construction: he moves its pages from his hands to the table as he reads, one stack shrinking as the other grows. We consider words on the page something that can be lingered over and savoured, but Bailey tears through his words so fast it is impossible to keep up.
Both shows ask: how hard do we need to listen? In each, minutiae can be discarded, at least in slivers of time. Bailey’s whirling forward force and Forced Entertainment’s meander each allow your brain to detach for a moment: to spin off into the different worlds they create, before returning once again, as best you can, to the work at hand.
It’s this fourth dimension, time, that really separates performance as an art form. The missed cannot be returned to. Instead we must always drive forward, leaning into the future.
When it’s over, we are deposited back into our lives, into our presents, always somewhat changed, even if only from the passage of time.
There’s an optimism to Forced Entertainment’s visions of the future, which clashes with the pessimism of Bailey’s inability to picture one. Perhaps it’s a softening of visions of the world as you get older: Forced Entertainment has been creating work together as a company since 1984, three years before Bailey was born. Or perhaps it’s a symptom not of age, but of generations: Bailey yelling himself hoarse against a world he senses it is impossible for him to have a voice in.
As the lights fade on Tomorrow’s Parties, it feels as if the baton has been passed on to us, the audience, to keep imagining these futures. The lights slowly dim, the universe of the future expands and contracts, and into the darkness the performers and their feigned improvisations disappear. But as the show winds down, our brains begin to whir: improvising our own pictures of one possible future after another. We head towards the future with a world of possibilities in our hands.
These futures don’t exist in This Is How We Die. ‘We cannot picture the future, because we cannot imagine living through, surviving, the present,’ Bailey yells at us. And so while Forced Entertainment passes on the gift of imaginable worlds and words, Bailey’s only recourse is to destroy them. He removes language from his stage, and from our heads, and from this world, and all we can do is sit back and be taken over by his lights and his music. There will be no parties tomorrow. This is how we die.
In that moment, you sit in the theatre and the sound consumes your body so that perhaps sound is all you are, and the white light burns into your eyes so you see your own veins reflected against your retinas and floating in front of you and you see inside yourself, you see inside and you are light and you are sound and you are nothing and you are everything. And there are no words and there were never words and words do not, cannot exist. All there is, is light and sound and all you are is light and sound and we destroyed the words, and now we start again.
Long after I leave these two theatres, there is one impression, seeded by Tomorrow’s Parties, I keep returning to: perhaps, in the future, everything will remain pretty much the same.
And in that lies the biggest question asked by both of these productions: how are we confronting our presents, if they are going to set up our futures? What parts of this earth, our lives, our existence, are we going to carry forward? And what parts should we destroy and leave behind?
Because as we sit in these theatres, in worlds of optimism and pessimism, with only endless words driving us forward, and as we consider tomorrow’s parties and as we consider how we die, only one thing can be held true. For now, we are irrefutably, irrepressibly, alive. And the future is ours for the taking.
Tomorrow’s Parties and This Is How We Die played at Carriageworks for About an Hour at Sydney Festival, 2016. Season closed.