on humour

On Saturday night I watched the final evening of the finals of the Place Prize in London. There were four performances – Begin to Begin by Eva Recacha, It Needs Horses by Raquel Meseguer and Ben Duke (Lost Dog), Cameo by Riccardo Buscarini and Antonio de la Fe Guedes, and Fidelity by Freddie Opuku-Addaie and Frauke Requardt. I’d seen one of the works previously – It Needs Horses – on the semi-final night in September 2010 (the same night that my project Desire Lines was presented). I’ve thought (and talked) a lot about It Needs Horses since that time, and particularly since Saturday. The work has had a hard time from many reviewers (“the work I admired least” – Judith Mackrell, ” thought all 3 pieces that did not win #placeprize were a lot better than the winner” – Sanjoy Roy via twitter), but I very much enjoyed the demands it placed on me as an audience member.

What follows is not a review as such, but more a ‘wondering’ about that work, its humour and also the extent to which I think it succeeded and failed. It is also the work that I cared about the most as I was watching. This care, I suspect, has more to do with my interests as an artist than the relative quality of the four works in the finals.

It Needs Horses is, I believe, about power between men and women, and touches on themes of autonomy and identity. The setting is a circus ring in which the two bedraggled protagonists – played eloquently and passionately by Chris Evans and Anna Finkel – appear to be down and out. But this framing – of the stunts humans will pull for a dollar or two – is simply a means by which Raquel Meseguer and Ben Duke are able to make possible what appear to be their central concerns.

The narrative of It Needs Horses is a familiar one (made more familiar by the circus setting – we know how these places function, they have a rich history of family, or close living and of tough circumstances) and is in four parts: 1) in which the man works his routines regardless of the woman (kicking and pretend masturbating her); 2) she then ‘awakens’ (and this is where the work was increasingly difficult to watch) and we are presented with images of an autonomous woman, prepared to kick, frotter, and climax whilst he, blankly, tolerates her; 3) he flexes his power and ‘tames’ her (complete with live foley sounds of whip cracks) as she gallops around the edge of the circus ring and we get to see a few stag leaps; and 4) her redemption is, quite simply, to leave the circus ring, and the work ends with him writhing in terror. But terror of what? Solitude? Loss? They say that more women are happy out of relationships whilst men tend to be happy in them.

The audience found this work funny and it has an accessible appeal evident by Lost Dog winning their place in the final courtesy of the highest audience vote in September last year, and then winning 9 of the 10 audience votes during the finals series.

But what are we laughing at?

I recently heard Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells talk about how he understands and works with humour in performance. His interest is in creating texts (or performances) that are ‘activated’ by an audience – when an audience laughs at what is on stage they ‘activate’ the text. Etchell’s spoke of how his desire is to then cause a problem for the audience that, because they initiated the laughter, makes them complicit in the problem.

This is where Lost Dog’s It Needs Horses is weakest. My concern as I listened to the audience on Saturday night was that I was not convinced that we understood ourselves as part of this problem of power, desire, and autonomy; that the laughter was able to keep us at arm’s length from the problem that Lost Dog and these two fine performers had generated. But who is responsible for this lack of complicity? Is it about the cultural attitudes of an audience or is something absent from the form-content of the work that enables us to laugh, but not be implicated?

As I watched Chris Evans scream his final scream after Anna Finkel’s exit from the circus ring, what I saw was a man who had exerted his power and lost. Although the victim – Anna’s character – finally expressed her autonomy by stepping outside of him, It Needs Horses remained his narrative, marked by her eventual absence. The significant question in my mind is the extent to which we as an audience identify with – and see ourselves in – this man’s world, his privilege, his ugliness, his capacity for violence.

Lost Dog deservedly won £25k on Saturday night, as well as £9k worth of audience votes over ten nights. Given this £34k worth of winnings, it was rather ungraciousness to hear Ben Duke have a go at critics who, after all, are responding to Lost Dog’s work in much the same way I am responding here – filtered by aesthetic biases, desire to see and experience particular kinds of work, and divergent histories. Even more strange, and given my concerns about the work above, was for Raquel Meseguer’s presence during the prize-giving to be expressed by her silence. We only heard the voice of the man.

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