THEATRE / Quiet please, mayhem in progress: From off the wall to off the shelf: Forced Entertainment's latest theatre piece takes a leaf out of the Manchester Central Library. Ellen Cranitch reports

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Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street, passed his schooldays there, inhaling the 'magic waft' of rubber flooring and furniture polish; Ewan MacColl saw it as a refuge for lovers, students and the unemployed; Morrissey loved its music - the interplay of echoes when you dropped a book. Now for its 60th birthday, Manchester Central Library, Vincent Harris's grand classical rotunda, is embracing one of Britain's most controversial theatre companies, the Sheffield-based co-operative Forced Entertainment, whose chosen territory is the slippery terrain where Performance meets Live Art.

'A library is where lovers meet and where spies exchange information,' says Tim Etchells, the company's writer and director: 'We were drawn to the idea of animating the stories and secrets contained in all the books, as well as conjuring the ghosts of past library users, invoking the voices of authors and characters, as well as readers. There are lots of stimulating contradictions: it's full of voice yet you're supposed to be silent; a reader sits in one place yet this consciousness travels unfettered . . .'

Forced Entertainment thrives on such paradoxes. Previous shows have seen them plunder images from popular culture, mixing high- and low-tech, littering the stage with televisions, microphones, placards, neon lights and trash.

Narrative doesn't get a look in; characterisation hasn't got a role. The aim of this show, Dreams' Winter, is no less modest: to deconstruct the cultural symbols around us and shed light on such lofty themes as the crisis of personal identity and the quest for meaning in an arbitrary world.

But can the key to existence be found in the Central Ref, as it's locally known? On Sunday evening it's closed to the public and rehearsals are underway. Five performers and a dozen students from local colleges are scattered around the circular reading room. All are barefoot and wearing pyjamas. They're rehearsing a section of the show entitled 'Panic'. At Etchells's signal they rifle the shelves, seize hefty tomes, hammer them down upon the tables and rip out the pages.

One lad in beige brushed-cotton hauls himself up beside a marble pillar and shimmies along the uppermost shelves, placing foothold after precarious foothold on such staples of the Psychology and Parapsychology section as The Denial of Death, The Concept of Mind and The Mythology of the Soul.

'We've often been described as post-modern,' says Etchells, 'which is a mixed blessing: it's accurate in that our work does reflect how oblique modern experience can be. In real life I've seen one dead body but I've seen thousands of dead bodies in films or on TV. But it's not useful in that it implies glibness, superficial concerns. I like to think our work is about something that matters, a truth, a beauty, no matter how provisional or compromised that is by our culture.'

Spawned at Exeter University in the late Seventies, Forced Entertainment were influenced in the early days by the iconoclastic American Wooster Group and by the visual poetry of Britain's own Impact Theatre Company. But they've long since established their own territory. 'Whereas Impact would take you to the source of the Nile or post-war Europe, Forced Entertainment have always placed themselves squarely in Nineties British urban culture,' says Stella Hall, director of the Barclays New Stages Festival and chair of the Arts Council New Collaborations Commitee. 'It's here. It's now. It's articulated in the language that surrounds us, the brashness, the detritus, the fractured images.'

Mercifully, Forced Entertainment are also keen on humour. Back at the rehearsal, Rob, Terry, Ian and Claire stand astride four leather-covered tables and stare out front. They call out to one another, wanting to know where they are in their respective stories: 'I've been shot in the stomach. I feel terrible. Where are you?' 'I'm on page 212. I'm walking away from the window and I'm thinking hard about my life. What's happening?' 'I'm lost. I've lost my fucking place.' But will scenes like this, the fleshing out of fictional journeys, intrigue the audience or simply leave them as baffled as the last speaker?

Forced Entertainment claim they are accessible to anyone who has grown up in a house with a television on. But the clutch of people who walked out of Emanuelle Enchanted at the Barclays New Stages Festival at the Royal Court last year clearly didn't think so. Like works about sterility or boredom that end up being simply sterile and boring, the glut of images that Forced Entertainment hurl at their audience as they interrogate modern culture can sometimes result in an experience that is nothing more than clotted, abrasive and opaque.

Yet, Lois Keiden, director of Live Arts at the ICA, stresses the importance of sticking with the company's shows, frustrating though the experience may be: 'What sets Forced Entertainment apart from other, lesser groups working in the same area is that they're never just about style. The content is there and it resonates long after the show in the images of beauty and vulgarity that are never randomly placed in their work.'

It's getting late in the reading room and the cast are practising the 'Sleepwalking and Drifting Off' section. Cathy Naden, inching forward, eyes closed, gets wedged behind the Philosopy shelves. A lank male student from Salford in striped flannelette crashes into a brunette from Crewe and Alsager College sporting pink nylon. The composer John Avery is demonstrating the Whispering Gallery-like acoustics of the room. His score will incorporate sounds of typewriting, children's voices, violin, piano and torrential rain.

He points to the domed ceiling to indicate how the architecture causes echoes to travel in specific and surprising directions. Written on the dome is an exhortation from the Old Testament's Book of Proverbs: 'Wisdom is the principal thing therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding . . .' If only it were that simple.

Photograph of Terry O'Conner by Hugo Glendinning

'Dreams' Winter' is at Manchester Central Library from 15-20 July. Tel: 061-236 7110

(Photograph omitted)