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.

10 thoughts on “i hated “exquisite pain”

  1. Scott

    I agree. That was among the worst theatrical experiences I have ever had. Without going into more detail than the work deserves, I would use three adjectives: tedious, poor, and bad. I want those hours of my life back. I frankly lost a good deal of respect for those generous Bergeners who clapped enthusiastically after having suffered the same pain as I had. They were sending the wrong message to the producers, who should not be encouraged to mount this show again. I thought the work was insulting to its audience. Two hours of two actors sitting and reading a poorly constructed text that, in the aggregate, leveled all forms of suffering into a whiney mush. It was a work that had the effect of de-exquisite-izing pain. It did have the effect of making me think of other works of literature that did similar things better: the plays of Beckett, for instance, use repetition to bring poetry, thought, and emotion to depictions of human suffering, and Queneau’s Exercises in Style demonstrate how variations on a single theme can be executed in an entertaining way.

  2. Simon

    As I see it, the point of concept art is the retelling of the concept, not the performance itself.

  3. Gro

    I should be happy i didn’t go then? maybe this
    trupp is a hype – seems to be after what you
    and scott says. metatheatre who recycles
    the same boring points. yes. beckett is definite
    better.

  4. JoseAngel

    The fallacy of imitative form. They tried to suggest the boredom, repetitiveness and compulsiveness of suffering by making the audience endure a boring, repetitive and compulsive piece. But the second boredom, repetitiveness and compulsiveness is not that of the experience of breakup- it is that of badly designed drama!

  5. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Yes. Though I agree with Simon I think – this works well as concept art. I mean, it’s sort of satisfying retelling it, though it was hideous living through it. I’d have preferred to read abou tit as a concept, I think…

  6. Gro

    Well, it’s better to watch tg-Stan then, i’ve seen some of their earlier productions and it’s certainly worth the money. They visit bergen with their new production at the end of november .

  7. Jill Walker Rettberg

    OK; I’ll give theatre another chance if you vouch for them 🙂

  8. Norman Hanscombe

    When your gut feeling and careful analysis agree, Jill, beware advice from the Tooth Fairy Brigade

  9. Copyriot » Postdramatiskt

    […] Forced Entertainment framtr?§der p?• Kulturhuset i Stockholm den 25-26 januari och dagen efter i Uppsala. F??rest?§llningen bygger p?• konceptkonstn?§ren Sophie Calle, k?§nd f??r att unders??ka den privata sf?§rens gr?§nser bland annat genom att f??rf??lja andra m?§nniskor och l?•ta privatdetektiver f??rf??lja henne sj?§lv. ?Ă–sikterna spretar vilt ?•t alla h?•ll bland dem som redan sett Exquisite Pain. Alla ?§r ??verens om att f??rest?§llningen inneh?•ller n?•got l?•ngtr?•kigt. Enligt vissa g??r det den till det s?§msta som sk?•dats p?• en scen, medan andra ser l?•ngtr?•kigheten som ett stadium att passera. Lehmann citerar John Cage p?• ett st?§lla i sin bok: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. […]

  10. I saw it to impress a girl

    Making members of the audience feel tortured (thus mirroring the suffering endured after a breakup) does not make for good theatre. Forced Entertainment definetely, although the pain was far from exquisite.

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Machine Vision

Cultural Representations of Machine Vision: An Experimental Mixed Methods Workshop

Call for submissions to a workshop, Bergen, Norway
Workshop dates: 15-17 August 2022
Proposals due: 15 June

The Machine Vision in Everyday Life project invites proposals for an interdisciplinary workshop using qualitative approaches and digital methods to analyse how machine vision is represented in art, science fiction, games, social media and other forms of cultural and aesthetic expression.

Digital Humanities Machine Vision

What do different machine vision technologies do in fiction and art?

For the Machine Vision in Everyday Life project we’ve analysed how machine vision technologies are portrayed and used in 500 works of fiction and art, including 77 digital games, 190 digital artworks and 233 movies, novels and other narratives. You can browse […]

AI and algorithmic culture Presentations

My talk on caring AIs in recent sci-fi novels

I’m giving a talk at an actual f2f academic conference today, Critical Borders, Radical Re(visions) of AI, in Cambridge. I was particularly excited to see this conference because it’s organised by the people who edited AI Narratives A History of Imaginative Thinking […]