Forced Entertainment’s show Speak Bitterness is a strange piece of theatre. It flies in the face of a lot of the normal assumptions about what makes theatre work. It is an unbroken six-hour long ( six-hour long- just think about that for a minute) catalogue of the failings of humanity, great and small, both as individuals and as societies. There is no narrative drive, no characterisation and it is diffuse and rambling, visually stark, with little use of technique and not a hope of any kind of coup de theatre. The six actors move around, choosing and reading aloud what appear to be verbatim quotes on a mass of A4 sheets of paper which are strewn around the set, both on the floor and across a long table. They come and go as it seems good to them, resting, fading into the background, listening, watching, or taking on the action as they please. It really shouldn’t work. So why does it?
Sadly I was not sitting in the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. If I had been I am quite sure that it would have seemed a very different piece. So different that I think I would be able to watch it there again as though I had never seen it before. Six hours in the same small space with a group of actors (even though the piece is designed so that you may come and go) would have made it an entirely new experience. I watched it at home via a live stream and during the six hours I also cooked and ate a simple meal and wandered down the road to take a picture of a sunset. During all this time, from five o’clock in the afternoon to eleven o’clock at night, the relentless catalogue of human shortcomings continued. As my partner asked quite pointedly several times when he wandered in, “has anything happened yet?” In strict theatrical terms the answer was no, and yet……………
As we listen to the quotes read out a series of threads, repetitions, rhythms and correspondences begin to emerge. Some are everyday, banal reasons for shame, (we could not program the VCR) some are horrifying, (we switched the medication when the nurse wasn’t looking) and some are single sentences hiding a whole story which we will never be told, (some of the letters we wrote weren’t even in our own handwriting). They range from the deeply personal to the political, from the trivial to the profound, and as we listen we begin to wonder if those two things are as far apart as we had imagined. Those individual, small human failings are the same ones which lead on to greater social breakdown and tragedy. It is all one. It is as if the actors are picking their way through a pile of discarded evidence, sorting helplessly through what has been left after a horribly flawed humanity has departed, having confessed their inadequacy. As time passes we come to “know” the individual actors and pick out their contrasting styles and characters. We watch as they become tired, are able to understand how they are working together and feel their relationships with each other. What begins as a series of simple statements of failure, sometimes hectoring, sometimes quietly honest or amusing, becomes something deeper as things fall apart and the sense of intimacy and collusion with the audience grows.
Speak Bitterness doesn’t respond to the usual measures of what makes a piece of theatre work, but it is something quite remarkable all the same. I am very glad that I had the chance to see it.