Wearing boxing robes, five ‘fighters’ take to a stage that has a classic mic hanging from the ceiling, and ringside attendants wearing black shirts and white bowties; based on appearances, we’re here to witness a piece about the ‘noble art’. But this isn’t about boxing, it’s about voting, and Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed are here again to challenge our perceptions about where the performance ends and the audience begins, to interrogate our role in this space, in this interaction, and to make us hate ourselves afresh. And they’ve chosen the grubbiest game of all through which to play it out – politics.
Over five rounds the candidates try to win us over, to convince us that they represent who we are and what we want. For our part, we use electronic voting pads to exercise our choice, to use our ‘voice’, and by the end of the evening only one candidate will remain. As our host explains, we are in control, we – this particular collection of individuals of varying ages, incomes and genders – will determine the outcome of this evening’s ‘game’, the unique results displayed on overhead screens. Ding-ding: Round One. But as questions are asked, and decisions are made, it gradually begins to dawn – with a typically Goed-ian sense of growing discomfort – that ‘choice’ is an easily manipulated term in this arena. And what happens when choice is really no choice at all?
As we are corralled into making increasingly disturbing decisions – which is the most offensive: nigger, faggot, cunt, retard, none? – Fight Night makes the subtle shift from straightforward – and slickly funny – critique of our image- and spin-obsessed political process to interrogating how we make our decisions and why, and what compromises we are prepared to employ along the way. In this particular game, which is preferable? The casual racist (whose appearance won her the most votes in the first round) or the pseudo-leftie with violent tendencies (whose consistent lack of votes prove to be no barrier to longevity)? Do I vote in the spirit of democratic engagement or should I give in to the performance and opt to shake up the narrative? What game is everyone else in the audience playing? And when we are so clearly being manipulated – visually and linguistically – at every turn, do our votes make any difference at all?
Practiced and polished, glib and self-serving, the candidates are everything we come to expect from modern political animals, and the production’s analysis of the current system is canny. Although I was aware of the contrivance at work – and a creeping suspicion that no matter who I voted for, the results would always be the same – at no point did it occur to me not to vote, because the importance of using my vote as been instilled in me since childhood; people fought for the right, died for it. But when the momentum of the performance leads me to choose between allowing people to leave or forcing them to stay, I begin to wonder how I would have fared in the Stanford experiment, and that’s a distinctly uncomfortable place to be.
And for those who want to leave? They still have to listen to the end of the performance. But perhaps your vote will make it play out differently next time around.