Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face
Breath-taking arrogance and arresting humility, monolithic certainties that stop dead at a surprising moment of fragility, callousness blossoming into soul-swelling generosity – all the teeth-clenching, enslaving contradictions of Ontroerend Goed, they’re all here. Nine ‘blueprints’ that break down nine performances into their components while simultaneously rebuilding them, re-performing them in a typographic ballet, a script pawing with casual precision at the limits of scripts. They’re having a godawfully good time doing it, but it’s a godawfully good thing they’ve done.
They brazen out their book’s most obvious challenge brilliantly, of how to represent a very personal, even one-on-one experience, via the medium of a single textual account. As the constellation of polaroids that illustrates the many participants in the first text, The Smile Off Your Face’ testifies, every journey through the three plays in their ‘Personal Trilogy’ was deeply, well, personal. From the wheelchair ride of The Smile… to the leaky confessional of Internal or the digital hall’o’mirrors of A Game of You, the performance itself emerged through interaction or occurred upon a plane of uber-subjectivity. And so the scripts are broken down into two or more sections, one detailing the experience of the performer, including some of the words they may have used and actions they may have performed, while the other represents the experience of the audience, recorded phenomenologically, in a fractured and loose sort of way.
It’s worth taking a step back at this point. Because it works well, bloody well, actually, at both recreating the experience of a performance previously experienced (A Smile… and Internal for me), or more wonderfully, in creating a persuasive experience of those you haven’t (which would be A Game of You for me). But what a thing to do! If a playwright wrote ‘The audience applauds’ after ‘The End’ you’d think them a total prick, but here we have:
‘I have to consider whether I’m truly happy. I can’t help comparing the ideal with the reality. Answering the question honestly with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is quite a challenge.’
It takes a bit of getting used to, is what I’m saying. And coming from a company who’ve attracted accusations of hubristic audience manipulation in the past, it could even stick in the craw. But it draws you in. It is, they remind us, an extrapolation of the results of a series of experiments which they have carried out on us and with us through their performances. Our position as both subject and object finds a challenging but ultimately convincing expression. They may be putting words in our mouth, but we were happy to fill their worlds with words, with our own words and thoughts and feelings, and as curators of their own conclusions, we have made them uniquely privileged in interpreting our inner worlds.
There is a sense in which this secondary voice is merely an impression, and sections of Internal and The Game of You in particular which feel notably empty, the record of an interaction as flat and unyielding as a Meisner exercise. There is a coolness too, at least in the English translation, to Ontroerend Goed’s poetry, which is haphazardly reproduced here as if to evade any impression of totality or ‘scriptness’ which the text could take on. It’s not until the middle plays, the second trilogy in this self-defined and self-defining canon, that the full importance of this begins to slot together.
The ‘Teenage Trilogy, consisting of the feral playground games of Once And For All We’re Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen, the shed-nanigans of Teenage Riot and the chalky exorcism of All That Is Wrong will not adhere to the strange temporal value of a ‘script’. Scripts are both record and recipe, inherently and increasingly explicitly uncomfortable in their own skins – ‘This script went to print before the first performance/in the middle of rehearsals/during the last stages of development/with the bun still firmly in the oven…’ You couldn’t very well restage any of the teenage trilogy, certainly not using Ontroerend Goed’s findings as a script, and so we have a blueprint instead, with the Belgian team gamely encouraging those that follow in their footsteps to have a jolly good go at it anyway: among the ‘REQUIREMENTS’ for Teenage Riot, they giggle, is ‘Time (approximately nine months, at a rate of two rehearsals a week)’. As much as I’d like to believe in a High School drama group picking this celebration of teenage space and illicit play as a year-long devise, it’s an ambition that seems squarely aimed at the impossible. For a future where things like that happen, for no future at all, or perhaps at a prosperity for Ontroerend Goed’s actions, a future interaction between text and performers, which proves to be as significant as their ambitions strive to be.
A History of Everything works in a far more conventional manner, the backward-hurtling-chaos of events becomes a bathroom-read miscellany of incidents, without quite shaking off its simple beauty. But it’s with ‘Audience’ that the ‘blueprint’ concept really sinks its teeth in. Blueprints are, in some ways, even stranger than scripts. They’re written down in the planning stages of a building’s construction, outlining where various components will go and how each supports the other. Perhaps certain passages of this book were sketched out in similar planning phases, but it isn’t written that way. These blueprints have been reverse engineered. They are a retrospective. They are a greatest hits.
And why are blueprints studied anyway, if they ever are? Not to construct identical buildings, or variations on the buildings, but to discover how the building is made, in other words, to deconstruct it. And what occurs when you study the cold, hard and hidden facts of a controversial piece like Audience? When the question that haunted the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe is answered with a statement as bald as ‘The girl keeps refusing [to spread her legs]. She always does, because she is a plant.’ Something occult is pushed into the light, some power is taken away from our memory of the event or we are tricked into believing that it has been.
These aren’t blueprints, not really, they’re controlled demolitions.
All Work and No Plays: Blueprints for Nine Theatre Performances by Ontroerend Goed is available from Oberon Books.
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