When it comes to infamous Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed, it can be hard to know the rules of the game. In Internal, the boundaries established at the start were rudely shifted, as performers betrayed the confidences of audience members; in the highly controversial Audience, meanwhile, the conventions of the relationship between performers and audience were upturned, transforming the act of spectatorship into an active decision. So when, in this new show with Australian company The Border Project, they invite us to be the arbiters in a democratic contest, it’s hard to take them at their word.
But the beauty of Fight Night is that it follows the rules flawlessly. Sure, gets a bit ugly, but no more so than the political systems it sharply interrogates. Although there are still startling twists and jolting handbrake manoeuvres, these are all direct products of the structure that the piece builds from the very beginning. If we have a problem, it’s with the systems being aped than with the performers themselves, who slickly and meticulously act out the self-destruction of modern democracy with our assistance.
Our host Angelo Tijssens tells us that, more than most shows, the audience is absolutely vital to Fight Night, and that we are here to make our voices heard. But as in representative democracy, our voices (exercised through little remote controls) are mostly used to quietly enable the speech of another – in this instance, the five “candidates”, each of whom has a slightly different but equally glossy layer of politician polish. In a piece that sits somewhere between election, game and television contest, these candidates are put through a series of different rounds, with one performer forced to leave the stage at the end of each of these mini contests. The last one standing is our winner.
The route of course varies from performance to performance depending on the choices of the audience, but one gets the impression that its implications are largely similar. Deals and coalitions demonstrate how the value of our vote can be slyly manipulated, while the cult of personality is shown to be ultimately empty. Stripped of the policies that usually form the ideological basis for voting, our eyes are open to the other factors that influence us – perhaps more than we’d like. There is also the question of whether or not the majority is to be trusted, while the seemingly utopian idea of complete consensus is countered with the productive friction of disagreement.
Another intriguing touch is the use of a series of demographic questions at the opening of show: gender, age, income, religious beliefs. Not only does this give Ontroerend Goed and The Border Project a fascinating picture of their audiences, it also makes us uncomfortably aware of our own position within this voting body. For those in the minority, as I was at a performance attended mainly by older theatregoers, the diluting of their voice within the crowd is immediately visible and occasionally unsettling. An implicit, unvoiced question naturally follows: is every vote really worth the same?
As complex, disturbing and stunningly intelligent as Fight Night is, however, its success is also its downfall. Like the tactics of the best politician, every last move is slickly – almost smugly – plotted. The game is so tightly planned and rehearsed that whatever the vote throws up, the contestants are primed to respond without the slightest of blinks. There’s never any real risk, any real danger. And I wonder if, deeply apt as this approach is, the glibness makes its impact easier to shrug off. The audience always remains at a distance and thus slightly insulated. Imitating the politicians it interrogates even better than it intends to, Fight Night ultimately ends up suffering from just the same problem as its slippery subjects.