Warning: contains spoilers.
As the title suggests, tonight the controversial Ontroerend Goed want to make the audience the star. But far from the madding crowds of something like the fourth plinth and Sky Arts, or the populist tyranny of reality television, Audience makes a slick and aggressive case for considering how we might conceive of ourselves as an audience: as receivers of, and responders to messages: how we might recognise ourselves – when broadcasted, when scrutinised, when singled-out or brought together. A far cry from the intimacy of their previous work Internal, here OG reduce theatre to a drop under a microscope, a cold hard diagram, strategically and obliquely approaching some of its very basic concepts. It feels born clean of some deep frustration with the orthodoxical knots of how interactive theatre has come to consider audience-versus-performer, and so with a fundamentalist clarity of purpose, and an almost totalitarian sense of spectacle, they come at us from the cool and dispassionate darkness to rain down thunder and guts, simplified and outrageous, seeking to dispense with much of what went before.
Audience is quite literal when it throws a spare and unforgiving lens on us. The camera that creeps onto the stage, feeding a 40 foot screen that vaults up into the dizzy bosses of the church roof, is trained on the stalls, threatening to turn us all into post-modern Gods, or for the more nervous, wilted revealed mortals. In turns elegaic, as the camera moves slowly across the shapes of those sitting in the semi-dark to a soundtrack of slow limpid cinematic breaks, abstracting and revealing tiny gesturality in shoulders and hands; funny, as the actors deftly improvise to voice the thoughts behind our faces; and intrusive, as people are filmed without consent, their clothes worn as if on a catwalk, their bags emptied on stage with demented gameshow glee, their vulnerabilities bluntly used to make points about the makeup and nature of a theatre audience.
Because if you are looking for compassionate theatre, you’re better off visiting this church in the daytime. Ontroerend Goed are as close to torturers or terrorists as theatremakers tend to come. One woman is singled out and berated by an actor, told she is unlovable, that she is shit, and told that this sadistic invective will only cease when she spreads her legs. Tonight an audience member – perhaps having read previously on this encounter, perhaps primed beforehand – stood in front of the woman to protect her from the camera’s blandishments, a curious standoff ensuing. When the audience were offered money to ask the girl to spread her legs, one man refused, sensing he might be the defiant hero of the piece. The critic Matt Trueman accepted, and asked to chant ever louder “spread your legs, spread your legs”, it seemed momentarily uncertain as to what he had sold.
As the performers situate themselves across the stalls, across the screen a spools mash-up of culture-jammed clips from golden age hip-hop to hard homophobic dancehall, confetti comes showering down, fireworks go off, flags are waved. Encouraged to dance, in what frankly feels like Weimar conditions of desperation, our very enjoyment is brought into sharp interrogative focus. As they adopt the tones of political leaders, and ask us to trust them, we are smoothly clued into potential weight of these decisions. As the footage of crowds throughout history, from the apartheid era, the civil rights movement, football matches, war celebrations, Nazi rallies, replace the visions of our own collectivity; it suddenly seems so trivial that we might be worrying about our hair, our body shapes, or how we might be made to look in a small theatre in front of a handful of people. As the stresses of embodiment and performativity melt away, and we are movingly nudged forward and outward into images of history, these vast questions that have felt somehow stamped on our bodies, become loosened. Suddenly, again, there is room to reflect.
While so much interactive theatre suffers from a kind of one dimensional avant-gardism, in which the only goal is “audience-participation”, OG are interested both in showing us the process of that participation, and the ramifications of this togetherness. With coy and glinting skill they look to morph the audience into a political subject, asking time and time again; where are we in the media spectacle? what do we look like to ourselves here? to others? do we have a right to withdraw? are there any lines to be drawn? would it even matter if we drew them? What happens when an individual is separated from the group? What happens when an individual is subsumed into the group? How serious is theatre?
Afterwards as the audience filed out, Trueman attempted to return the money; it was taken only “the spirit of the show”, and what was afterall, only theatre, was now over. The performers’ refusal, just like their show, sought to deny this distinction. But indeed, this was only theatre. Theatre as Hoberman sphere, articulated and expansive, with a smoothly mechanical psychologism; theatre that seamlessly shrinks, expands, and coheres. Theatre so vertiginous in its claims to the media sublime, that we at once recognise ourselves as we are overwhelmed. Theatre that brings an insecure world into the audience like a deep contusion. If this was only theatre, I had to ask myself, why then was I shaking so much?