Traditionally theatre is a place set apart from the tyranny of time. Once ‘the curtain goes up’ at the advertised time and ‘latecomers’ have been admitted or repulsed, chronological time is banished, we are free to be suspended out of time, removed to another era, shuttled backwards and forwards through the ages. In the theatre we are released from temporal concerns; except of course we’re not.
The human bladder is resistant to theatre’s temporal slight of hand, the bum cheeks ditto. Last trains, last buses, last orders and expiring parking meters all remain resolutely rooted in a steadily marching ‘here and now’, dragging us back to glance at our ticking watches in the auditorium’s gloom. Even without these humdrum nagging externalities time is still free to torment us in the theatre; surely genuine prisoners can be no more acutely confronted by time’s implacability than the inmates of a dull theatre show.
In Time Critical we acknowledge all these tensions and do away with furtive glances at watches by placing time on stage. After my brief introduction the show runs for a precise duration, each of two performers is presented with their own allotted time measured out on the competing sides of a chess clock. Throughout the show one or other side of the clock is counting down to zero depending on whose side of the story is being cold. When a performer runs out of time they stop whether their script is completed or not.
The show is designed to allow barely enough time to zip through the material. If the performers lose their way, grow too expansive in their delivery or relax too fully into the audience’s warmth then they don’t make it to the end of their script. In Time Critical, as the title suggests, the tyranny of time is not banished from the theatre but moved centre stage.
Last week we were asked about Time’s position in the show during a post-show discussion. We we re-rehearsed these thoughts on the relation between Real Time and Theatre Time. We spoke about the show modelling the lived experience of a long life in which time appears to accelerate with age, years flashing by with ever increasing speed as your life extends. We spoke about our interest in formal constraints, the restrictions we place upon ourselves and our shows as a source of creative tension forcing us towards invention and fresh thinking. We spoke about this Theatre as Sport racing to an unpredictable conclusion. We spoke about many things, all of them valid, but what we didn’t speak about, because we forgot about it at the time, was Time Critical’s engagement with the existential nature of time.
The show’s original rationale was to celebrate our 25th Anniversary by spending 25 minutes addressing World Events from the last 25 years and 25 minutes addressing Stan’s Cafe events from the last 25 years. With the show’s revival and reworking this year we added a minute on for each side. This huge restriction clearly forced us to made radical choices about what to include in each narrative and how much time to allocate to each event. These choices reflect our choices in life. We each have a limited lifespan of indeterminate duration, we must choose how to allocate this time. We have to prioritise; we have to decide what is a ‘waste of time’ and what is an essential use of time.
In the show Craig challenges Amy/Rochi* about her decision to spend time performing the Defence’s opening statement from the OJ Simpson trial when “there’s a lot [of World Events] to get through”. Such judgements are personal, hence Amy/Rochi’s reply “It’s my time, I’m doing it”.
Of course for many OJ Simpson’s trial was a World Event but for OJ Simpson it was also a personal event and Amy/Rochi’s story is an event in the world and so a World Event, just one that is not the subject to much publicity that OJ Simpson’s story – though it is now the partial subject of a theatre show.
In the tit-for-tat battle that niggles away through Time Critical Amy/Rochi launches her own attack and questions Craig about his priorities:
R/A: Why are you going to the Isle of Wight?
C: To visit my girlfriend’s parents.
C: Yes, Charlotte Goodwin.
R/A: Why’ve you not mentioned her before?
C: We’ve only just met.
R/A: And she wasn’t worth mentioning!
C: I didn’t say that, look I’ve not got time for this.
Sometimes we don’t recognise the importance of certain moments when they happen and sometimes we get caught up in things that are unimportant at the expense of that which is of value.
Immediately after Amy/Rochi has related the appalling horror of the three day Dubrovka Theatre siege, Craig describes Stan’s Cafe spending two days pretending to be astronauts on a fake station on the Wolverhampton-Birmingham Metro Line. Amy/Rochi’s blunt question is intended to carry the weight of conscience: “Why?” Why do we spend our precious time doing this when there are so many other more serious things going on in the world? Stumped for a more articulate response Craig’s answer is despairing, disarming or defiant: “Art”.
So why do we believe in art enough to spend such time on it? In the show we spend lots of Craig’s time re-enacting moment from old Stan’s Cafe shows, why do we value it enough to allocate it this time? Because it helps us process the bombs and the famines, the inventions and disasters, the squabbling and financial exploitations; it is an escape and a reward, it is an alternative world and our own world remade, it is an endeavour to make this place better, this time better. This is why we give theatre the time.
So if the questioner from that Q&A is reading this here is your answer: “time is at the heart of Time Critical in the same way it is at the heart of our lives”.
* Rochi Rampal was part of the original devising team and performed the 50 minute version in 2016. Amy Taylor stepped into the revival and reworking of the show and performed the 52 minute version in 2017.
This post also appears as an essay in the Helpful Things section of this website.