23 & 25 January 2019.
The theatre seating is out-of-bounds. Heads of broccoli have been placed at intervals on the floor around the space. Their varying shades of green and yellow stand out within the black box surroundings. The audience gathers among the cruciferous forms. We are on our feet. In the centre of it all is James Monaghan.
When he first speaks, it is to orientate us – to set parameters.
“This is a forest. This is Forest“.
“I am the performer. You are the audience“.
Monaghan carefully choses his words as he sets the scene and (to some extent) manages expectations. When he tells us we are in a forest and in Forest, he is inviting people to join him in both the performance and a leap of faith – to imagine.
There’s a ‘warning’ that what’s to come may leave people confused, A hint too, that for Monaghan, this may be a quest of sorts. He’s “trying to find a way out”. A lot of Forest’s structure feels like process as well as performance. A defined series of actions to achieve a particular end.
The position of audience members is carefully adjusted before things start. Monaghan separates people out or moves them a few inches this way and that, until finally he is satisfied. Throughout, we are subject to sequences of arranging, rearranging, counting, naming and classifying. All done politely, calmly and with purpose. Not in the exercise of any power, but seemingly in search of answers. Attempting to make sense of something.
When his stories are shared in among the trees, it’s never clear what is truth or fiction. A friend is lost in the forest due to Monaghan’s forgetfulness, and left to spend the night up a tree. Tales of formative sexual encounters. An embrace. The ‘memories’ he shares are vivid. Yet, he also seems to assemble those narratives in front of us. Assigning roles to audience members, tracing out shapes with his hands – is he remembering or creating?
Monaghan is an enigmatic story-teller. He whispers something in someone’s ear. Names are seemingly plucked from a repository where family and acquaintances mingle with celebrities and porn stars. He will assert that he won’t reveal the nickname of someone who performed oral sex on his younger self – only to drop it in unnoticed, and out of context, much later.
Clutched like a bouquet, positioned like a crest on a school jumper or used to hide behind – those broccoli are deployed ingeniously in support of the stories being told. They also serve to visually anchor the show’s ever-shifting perspectives, as Monaghan holds one up high in his outstretched hand to depict a child’s eye view or he lies in the middle of an avenue of green florets, as if gazing up at the sky through a leafy canopy.
There’s a curious parallel between the placing of the broccoli and the subsequent positioning of the audience – both begin scattered (seemingly at random) across the space, then numbered, lined up straight and finally brought together in a cluster.
To a large extent, his audience are mere pawns. Assigned names, given roles, herded back and drawn in. Although questions are asked, Monaghan doesn’t necessarily require an answer. “Are you a leader or a follower?“. “What do you hold on to?“. “What is your guilty pleasure?“. He is planting a seed rather than inviting an audible response in that moment.
Elements of the show feel like an attempt to bring stuff that is hidden, or not usually spoken about, out into the open. When Monaghan mentions Pornhub’s busiest time is 9.30am, he also bets, that if he asked a room full of strangers if they were part of that viewing spike, no one would admit to it. No one does, yet he appears to raise his hand.
Later, cradling a head of broccoli in his hand, he presents it for inspection. Pointing to parts of it as if it were a brain, he explains the connections and chemical reactions that can lead to addictive behaviours, and trigger bingeing. Some of the audience interaction seems designed to explore similar ideas, with the focus on the thrill of anticipation rather than any climactic moment, as people are psyched up to be part of scenarios that never come to fruition.
It can be dark and knotty in Forest. At one point, Monaghan’s manic dancing (as if in his teenage bedroom, while no one is watching) morphs into a depiction of fast and furious sexual activity. His increasingly desperate urge to reach a climax causes embarrassed laughter from some, while others look unsettled by the twisted power dynamic and violent urges that permeate the fantasy being played out.
As the show unfolds, it’s hard not to look for themes and patterns, to try to join the dots. Some seem to emerge – the pervasive presence of porn, the blurring of fantasy and reality – but meaning feels elusive. In an age where many shows too eagerly spill their guts, Forest is brave enough to leave so much unexplained.
When Monaghan gathers everyone around to look down upon a cluster of broccoli and imagine we are viewing a forest from an airplane window, it’s an affecting moment. As he details a fragile eco-system with deep invisible roots and tangled networks, he could be describing the trees of his imagination or the mind that is generating them.
Tricky, audacious and intriguing, Forest is an exhilarating experience. A stepping out of the head. An attempt to connect. A coming together.
From all that we are told, a cautionary tale about the fate of an isolated tree stays with me. It will grow faster than those in the forest, and be taller, but its lonely life will inevitably be shorter.
Image by Kate Elizabeth Daley