Tim Etchells’s Sheffield-based theatre company Forced Entertainment has launched into new territory with Out of Order – this is its first piece without spoken or written text. A devised work, it pits six clowns against each other – a rancorous superannuated troupe locked in a queasy co-dependent relationship despite the fact they loathe each other.
Dressed in red check suits and wearing rough make-up, they assembled around a table. One eyeballed another, and lunged to attack; chairs flew as the aggressor chased their fleeing victim to the strains of a Val Martinez Sixties soul track, while the other clowns tried to apprehend and restrain them. When everyone had calmed down the chairs were righted and all six took their seats – only for the same thing to kick off with a different pair.
And so it went on, with the music erupting each time another chase began. Make-up smeared, middle-aged bodies quickly showed fatigue. Restraining tactics became more farcical and severe. Eventually, they collapsed, knackered, to the floor.
However, the warped interpretation of a clown act continued. One pulled a balloon from his pocket, inflated and released it; the rest followed suit, but the balloons started being treated like drugs, with the entire group huffing desperately into them and scrabbling for used ones on the ground.
When one clown started carrying a stack of chairs, the others blindly followed – this turned into something like a death march round the stage. Horns were honked in faces in an increasingly vindictive battle. Finally, the squabbles round the table started again, this time to the strains of The Blue Danube.
There were flashes of humour, as the dregs of a choreographed routine appear, only to be subsumed by violence. But Out of Order deliberately pushed past laughter to somewhere seriously uncomfortable; a grinding, enervating, repetitive display of disruption, conflict and poisoned group dynamics. A sign of our times, no doubt. It made you think of Beckettian absurdism, but here oppressive silence reigned, and no one was harbouring any hope.
This was theatre as endurance test, and some of the audience didn’t make it, shuffling out before the 90 minutes were up. A shame, because as a comment on the state of the nation, you couldn’t help but feel it hit the spot.