It’s 4am and I’m struggling to stay awake while two people made up as clowns throw questions and answers each other’s way. ‘How do spark plugs and three-prong plugs work?’ I try to process this but it’s more than my battered brain can handle at this hour. The show began practically on the stroke of midnight and I’ve got 20 more hours to get through. Welcome to Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! in its extended 24-hour run. This is the first time that the show, which normally lasts six hours and 12 at most, will go on for this long. Four hours into it, I’ve come to think in Q&A mode. (‘Am I a glutton for punishment?’ ‘Clearly.’)
Of course, no one is actually forcing me to stay for the full span of the performance. Spectators are free to come and go as they please. I could go home, get some rest and come back, suitably refreshed and in the mood for some more entertainment. Sticking it out seems important, though, not just as a personal endurance test (my only prior experience of durational performance on this scale has been Ragnar Kjartansson’s 12-hour Bliss (2011), staged as part of Performa 11 at the Abrons Art Center in New York, and I didn’t make it to the end) but because staying up all night and collectively marking time is part of what this whole exercise appears to be about.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s 12-hour Bliss (2011), Performa 11, New York
And then I find it genuinely hard to pull myself away. At its best, Quizoola! really is quite entertaining, by turns moving, poetic, thought-provoking, crackling with wit, a seemingly endless supply of it; even when inspiration is flagging and performers fall back on set phrases and tired tropes, resort to scatological jokes and sexual innuendo to grab our attention, the spectacle of seeing people struggle to come up with an answer on the spot, occasionally slip up only to bounce back again, show their weaknesses and thus lay themselves open to our scrutiny makes for compelling viewing.
The clown make-up partly obscures facial expressions, rendering them both inscrutable and overblown. There is something vaguely disquieting, even sinister, to this theatrical front that affords a measure of anonymity and puts performers at some remove from the audience. A simple but effective way of physically demarcating the space in which the game of question and answer unfolds consists in a garland of white light bulbs, loosely strung together with wire to form a luminous circle around the two chairs on which alternating pairs of performers – drawn from a pool of six, three men and three women, allowing for several permutations – sit for much of the time. Above them a red neon sign reads ‘Quizoola’.
In one of the passing self-referential comments that draw attention to what we are seeing, a performer remarks that they seem to be in somebody else’s set. And so indeed they are. The white room, virtually unadorned except for the aforementioned props and a few opulent touches, such as mirrors, chandeliers and French windows, could be the setting for, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis-Clos (No Exit, 1944). The minimalist décor was in fact created for The Salon Project, re-enacted at the Barbican by the Scotland-based company Untitled Projects as part of the biennial SPILL Festival of Performance in April.
Three days before the start of Quizoola!, I found myself pacing that very room expectantly in full Victorian regalia, my hair all puffed out and piled up, trying not to stumble on my train, while members of the Untitled Projects company were milling about with other guests sporting formal period attire. We had been asked to give our measurements ahead of time, so that a matching outfit could be selected for us from among the company’s treasure trove of costumes covering a period of 30 years, from 1885 to 1915, during which the Parisian salon waxed and waned. The period costumes, not unlike the clown make-up, were intended as a ‘device to destabilize the audience and provide a remove from their everyday selves’ as well as granting the ‘freedom to converse and think in different ways’, to quote one company member.
Although the audience, thus hurriedly transformed by skilled hair stylists and make-up artists, was centre-stage in this piece of immersive theatre, in practice not enough time had been factored in to allow the guests to get on with the business of conversation. Left to our own devices, in the rare moments when we were not being force-entertained with mini-lectures by invited speakers, piano recitals and a graphic video purportedly alluding to World War I, which brought about the demise of the salon culture, we were doing just fine. As the three-hour event drew to a close and everyone began to unwind, I was introduced to a couple of aspiring salonnières, who promptly extended an invitation to ‘informal gatherings’ of their own.