Edinburgh International Festival: Samuel Beckett meets trash television, says the quote on the programme for Real Magic; and it’s hard to think of a better description of this brilliant and painfully searching show from Forced Entertainment, the Sheffield-based performance company led by Tim Etchells.
It specialises in cutting-edge expressionistic performance, often with an absurdist edge; and there were a few early departures and a solitary “boo”, as they made their International Festival debut at The Studio on Tuesday, with the first Edinburgh performance of this brilliant and relentless study of what is going on in the game shows that play such a key role in our screen culture.
In Real Magic, the three performers – Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Clare Marshall – take it in turns to play the contestant, the question-master and the assistant, repeating again and again a preposterous sequence of events in which the contestant attempts – without success – to guess which word the assistant is thinking of.
So sometimes the mood is showbiz-ridiculous, with chicken suits. Sometimes it acquires the glittery pseudo-sophistication of a magic show; sometimes it becomes utterly tragic, lost in its own futility. And always, through the sheer brilliance of their performance – backed by shifting sequences of sound and light, looped applause and canned laughter – the company are exploring the powerful patterns of bullying and exploitation, of impossible tasks framed as tests of brain-power or character, and of the contestants’ stubborn complicity in their own humiliation, that run through game-show culture.
As the late, great Bruce Forsyth used to sing, life is the name of the game; and as a point of departure for debate about 21st-century attitudes to ourselves and to human dignity, it’s hard to imagine a show more brilliant than this – or more essential to anyone who cares about theatre, and the way we live now.
Until 27 August. Today 7pm.