East Midlands

In a downpour on a June afternoon the performance group Medium Rare occupied Wellington Circus, a park outside Nottingham Playhouse. ‘Opening Hours’ carried a warning that it involved participation in unspecified forms of ‘minor physical activity’. Upon the green were laid out three roughly geometrical formations, including a cluster of wooden chairs draped in pink plastic, as a whole it had the makeshift appearance of a sports day obstacle course.

At a temporary tarpaulin shelter I found a gathering of performers and participants. While the audience were issued with translucent yellow rain ponchos and matching swimming floats, the performers were dressed as PE teachers in uniform navy shorts and jumpers, yellow aertex polo-shirts and white trainers. Soaked to their skin but still possessed of brisk no-nonsense manners, games-whistles at the ready, they dispensed instructions with a cheerful authority.

First up was ‘Whatever your squad does, it needs to be uniform’, in which the audience is led through their paces as a synchronised swimming troupe, putting our floats to good use to protect us from the sodden ground. Being re-ordered and posed to form brief tableaux-vivants of increasing complexity by our instructor, who sternly repositioned limbs where necessary and required more precise pointing of fingers and toes, I became aware of both my discomfort with almost literally jumping through hoops in the name of group choreography and at the same time my bodies instantaneous response to instruction. The drenching rain removed any sense of self-consciousness at being observed, the act of staying out in the deluge was ridiculous in itself, but my automatic acquiescence to orders issued politely but firmly caused a more unsettling form of self-awareness.

Our second activity, ‘I hope in this time we’ve had together you can realise that we can cooperate… and make something that is really nice’ was more closely related to a management training exercise. Seated in a circle facing inwards towards our instructor we took part in a game of catch, shouting to introduce ourselves across the distance as we received the kiwi used in place of a ball. There was again a conflict between my internal reaction, a cringe at being subject to team building, and my external response to concentrate very hard on catching as the game became more challenging so as to avoid disrupting play and to speak clearly so that I would not have the embarrassment of having to repeat myself.

‘Opening Hours’ is more complicated and precise than earlier performances by Medium Rare while maintaining a level of playfulness. This most recent event feels carefully orchestrated in terms of audience experience and the focus on the ambiguity of their power as performers is explored in greater depth. The rules within game playing and the jurisdiction of the PE teacher work subtly on the audience. The situation demands our obedience implicitly as the performance utilises the signifiers of a childhood authority figure to circumvent our more rational self-possession, tapping into an ingrained aspect of our cultural identity. I am interested to see how this balance between the playful and authoritarian could be developed in future performances, using frivolity as a counterpoint to push the boundaries of the participants’ politeness.