i hated “exquisite pain”

Last night Scott and I saw Exquisite Pain, the play I was looking forward to by London-based theatre group Forced Entertainment. I did not enjoy it. I really should have read more reviews before going – this deliberately tedious piece consists simply of two actors sitting at two desks on a stage and taking turns to read stories of “my greatest suffering”. The woman reads 60 or so repetitions of the same story of a breakup, with slight variations. The breakup was Sophie Calle’s, and happened in 1985, and each retelling begins the same way, more or less: “Five days ago, the man I love left me.” “Six days ago, the man I love left me.” Until finally, we get to “Ninety-eight days ago, the man I used to love left me.” The retellings are slightly different from each other and there is some relief – about thirty or so days in she’s finally angry with him. By sixty days in she’s less engaged in the story. By eighty days in she just repeats the same mundane details of the room it happened in, the date, the barest details.

Between each of the woman’s retellings of this breakup, the man reads a story of someone else’s “greatest suffering”. There are a lot of children losing parents or siblings, a good number of breakups and a couple of anomalies, like the man in pain from toothache or the man enduring military service. This great suffering becomes bland and banal, all read aloud from a paper manuscript by an actor who does not attempt to differentiate between the characters whose suffering he’s reading about.

I get the point of the piece – or at least it’s point for me. Suffering is banal, boring, repetitive, and people who’ve just experienced a breakup (or grief) need to self-indulgently repeat their boring stories again and again (I’m sure I’ve done so too when grieving). Relief comes only when you’ve repeated your own agony for long enough that not only your audience (your friends) but even you yourself are bored with it – I was certainly relieved when this two-hour performance with no intermission was over.

The thing is, I got that point after ten minutes. I was already bored. I resent Sophie Calle and Forced Entertainment for forcing me to sit through that. The concept is reasonably interesting, and had this been an art exhibition, for instance, I would have happily spent 10 or 15 minutes browsing the stories. It doesn’t work well as theatre or as narrative.

I found Mary’s review of the piece, written about its performance at the Spill festival in London, interesting in that it compared it to the book by Sophie Calle that the text was taken from. Mary finds the theatrical adaptation lacking. Rachel Lois appears not to have enjoyed it but she insists on seeing theoretical questions, and calls it “complex, clever and heavily layered”. I’m not convinced of that.

The Bergen audience was surprisingly polite, more polite than the London audience by the sound of it. Only four or five people left, and despite a good deal of fidgeting throughout the performance, the clapping was cautiously enthusiastic. Pity we paid 170 kr a ticket, though.

14. October 2007 by Jill

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