I can’t give Audience the review it deserves, or rather the review it deserved before becoming the talk of the Edinburgh festival and one of this year’s most controversial shows. I’ve read reviews, I know too much. Knowing the end of The Mousetrap or the fate of Javert would hardly damage a viewer’s ability to process and participate in them, but in the case of Ontroerend Goed’s latest experiment in theatrical provocation, an element of outraged surprise seems intrinsic to its original purpose. Arriving in London, Audience threatens to transform into something new, attracting spectators who’ve heard which gauntlet they’ll be throwing down and are more than ready to fight back. In a show in which the audience is the centre of attention, such a development is far from inconsequential.
With Audience Ontroerend Goed have moved from the intimate negotiations of private and public of Internal and the exploration of sensory experiences of Smile Off Your Face to turn to a more forceful and even baroque exploration of group dynamics. Minutes after taking our seats the camera is trained on us, and as our images are transmitted to the vast video screen which fills the stage we gradually and tentatively begin to perform. In these first moments, where disembodied hands and shadowy outlines are relayed against rippling and pulsing ambience, our performances are playful and minor. A woman flutters her fingers in a coy greeting, another runs them around the rim of her wine glass. Flatteringly lit and considerately shot, we gradually become comfortable with our role; the remainder of the show sees us forcibly evicted from this comfort zone and brought to terms with the full responsibility of a performer or participant.
The most challenging and controversial moment arrives soon after, when the goodwill which Ontroerend Goed have generated with their gentle provocations and smiling presentation evaporates in a matter of minutes. It is then that the real performance begins, as members of the audience begin to rebel and object, as invisible factions emerge and conflicts spill over into disruptive behaviour and audience walk-outs. With the house lights raised the range of reactions, from extreme discomfort to wide-eyed exhilaration is visible and these clashing energies feed off and consume one another.
This is the Jerry Springer show with overtones of Orwell, a rough and spiky debate which constantly threatens to derail its forum, where the monolithic aesthetics feel like the potential backdrop for a revolution. The giant screen seems made to be torn down, the performers ready for a fight, comfortable with the prospect of things turning nasty. When the tone of the show begins to brighten towards the conclusion, as discourse gives way to dancing, the energy remains charged, the hands we raise in the air are still balled into fists. We are reluctant party-goers and cautious political allies. When the lights come down the applause is sporadic and reluctant, as if conforming to this convention would be to validate a contract to which many had already become hostile.
To go into more detail would be to do an injustice to its future audiences, and to Ontroerend Goed themselves, who have created a troubling, sweat-inducing experience which refuses any form of emotional closure. Audience provokes debate because it leaves the line between reality and theatre in hopeless disarray. We have all performed for Ontroerend Goed, whether we chose to pull with or against their stated intentions, but the extent to which our experience has been rigged, and the complicity of one individual in particular (surely the show’s protagonist) are never satisfactorily resolved, however long we argue in the bar afterwards.