Ridiculusmus on Total Football and scrabbling around for national identity

Written for Exeunt

David Woods and Jon Haynes – Ridiculusmus

Two men dressed in suits stood in a suitcase filled with grass. Over the course of 70 minutes they managed to communicate the absurdity and frustration of the stymied Northern Ireland peace process without taking a step out of their turf box. Exuberant, sombre yet defiantly humorous Say Nothing was my first experience of the work of Ridiculusmus. At the time I was a student at the University of Kent, the establishment where David Woods and Jon Haynes also gained their PhDs. With doctorates in, respectively, comedy and performance art, the work of Woods and Haynes has always defied convention. The amalgamation of humour and artistry has helped to make their work incredibly accessible, winning them an affectionate place within the heart of both critics and audiences for the last 18 years.

Nearly two decades of work is an impressive legacy for a still vigorous company of two; many marriages don’t last that long. “Yes but there are three people in our marriage, the third one being the audience!” Down the phone I can hear Woods grinning. “It’s shocking when you think about it… I’ve spent more time with [Haynes] than any other relationship in my life.” Apart from the threesome aspect why has it worked for so long? The answer is refreshingly non-‘luvvie’ “We don’t hang out together (people do find this quite odd)… to keep fresh and excited about meeting we just really meet to work and perform. When we’ve got a show up and running I’ll only really see him a few minutes before the show, it’s driven on the performing.” This sounds like a reasonable statement but I actually do find myself feeling surprised by it; on stage they seem to share a sort of symbiotic understanding of each other which one automatically assumes comes from a long personal friendship.

Tough Time

Ridiculusmus in Tough Time, Nice Time

They are perhaps best known to date for their take on The Importance of Being Earnest, an anarchic two man version of Oscar Wilde’s classic play, wittily subtitled ‘A Trivial Comedy by Two Serious People’. But the last piece Ridiculusmus brought to the Barbican (where their new show is currently playing) Tough Time, Nice Time was a weightier, even bleak affair (which is discussed at greater length in Deborah Pearson’s essay for Exeunt on the role of narrative in theatre).

The thing that marks them out as a company is their ability to be simultaneously silly and serious. Nowhere is this duality more perfectly captured than in the company’s articulation of their methods. The list reads thusly: Attitude, Reality, Sensitivity, Edge, Focus, Listen, Open (your heart) and Play. The handy acronym for which is ARSEFLOP.

Total Football, their latest piece, commissioned by the Barbican, seems to expand on the list above. “Football is a metaphor, it’s not really a show about football; we’re using it as an examination of identity in society. The football is a skeleton but it’s a very enjoyable skeleton.” Woods laughs. “You mustn’t get your hopes up that it is 90 minutes of kick about. We’re scrabbling around for lost national identity.” Well thank god for that, because I’m certainly not a football fan, but then neither are they: “Jon definitely isn’t a football fan. I would occasionally watch a match but didn’t care who was playing, I would ally myself with the team who was playing sexy football as they call it.”

Total Football

Ridiculusmus in Total Football

Sexy football does sound pretty exciting, with the idea of total football sounding even more so. This tactical style was pioneered by the Dutch in the 1970s and basically involves a carousel technique where all the players swap positions throughout the game. Woods admiration is clear “It requires an incredible athleticism…this idea of inter-changeability and fluidity that the English games weren’t even thinking about” and he seems to see it as a methodology for life “…we’re stronger when we’re interbred and fluid – interracial and mixing, you become a more powerful breed by mixing.”

At its heart it seems Total Football is an exploration into a Britain trying to find its feet in a post 7/7 world. “We’ve got to find out who we are and what have we got…we’ve sort of latched on to football as this bureaucratic solution to [these questions], inspired by this Olympic attempt to get Team GB together.” Do we even play as Great Britain in the Olympics I ask; it feels like a stupid question but I really don’t know. Apparently so and FIFA aren’t happy about it, their displeasure causing Ireland, Scotland and Wales to withdraw their players from inclusion in order to remain valid entrants for competitions such as the World Cup. Next year, as of going to print, Team GB will be represented by the England under 25s.

Whilst Ridiculusmus do not work to traditional narrative constraints, Woods says that this time the story of this Olympic anomaly and all its philosophical implications has directed their creative process. “We’re usually driven by trying to show a slice of life and try to build an arc of feeling within that slice but this one actually does have quite a story in that it is retelling the events leading to England being the British team…”

It seems it is also about a change in attitude to national expectation for ‘our boys’ to win. A number of books on football, including Why England Lose, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, and The Beautiful Game, by David Conn, have had a profound effect on Woods and Haynes during their research. “[Kuper and Szymanski] took apart lots of these questions including this sense that we are underachieving and prove that we in England over achieve based on population and gross domestic product. By making a second round we’ve actually exceeded what we should be achieving….[it’s] a major shift in expectation. This isn’t new knowledge but it is knowledge that we think is worth sharing, it can have a positive change on people…a culture of hope and reality and putting it into perspective.”

He tells me a fascinating fact about the success of major sporting events being measured in happiness, and more prosaically in suicide rates, which go down for a year after one takes place. “There’s this happy period where people felt connected…I wonder if the Royal Wedding will have the same effect…” I also wonder about this and have been wondering about it ever since, about happiness and suicide, collectiveness and identity. Whoever would have thought a show about football could have so much philosophical potential? Ridiculusmus of course.

Total Football is on in the Barbican Pit from 18th May to 18th June 2011. For tickets, visit the Barbican website.


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