Experiments are interesting but prone to failure and Ghent company Ontroerend Goed’s collaboration with Richard Jordan Productions Ltd, Vooruit and Drum Theatre Plymouth is a good example.
Always looking to push the envelope of theatre with thought-provoking pieces, Ontroerend Goed raises some valid ideas in Audience but fails in the execution.
With a camera trained on the auditorium both covertly and taking centre stage, and the images projected immediately or played back on the screen which dominates the otherwise empty performance area, we become the content.
Starting out with an amusing homily on protocol at the theatre, the ‘action’ then hops between studies of faces in the audience with voice-over ‘thoughts’ and devices designed to provoke or perhaps repel, exploring the boundaries of when individuals morph into a homogenous crowd.
The problem though is the very setting of the piece: we have come to the theatre to be entertained, challenged, interactive - whatever - but overall we have come to experience a process which the players control and know where it is going.
Added to which the company have actors sitting among the audience itself and speak for us exchanging the viewpoints it assumes we have. And even assuming who we are (seen this before in their last piece Teenage Riot where again the audience is harangued for being elitist and monied) and making its own sweeping assumptions such as that any male/female pair that arrive must be a couple.
It is this confusion which, to my mind, invalidates the experiment - when an actor starts to be very nasty, for no apparent reason, to a female sitting in the second row, telling her he will only stop if she spreads her legs for the camera, we assume she is a stooge (else why wouldn’t she just walk out) – in fact if she wasn’t then I vehemently object to the random selection of a young woman whose issues and mental health is unknown, in the name of entertainment. But a theatre audience is unlikely to react in the same way to such public nastiness as one may if this was something seen on the streets where such an experiment may have valid results.
And when a young man takes up the chant in exchange for a few quid, we can’t condemn as again we assume this is all part of the fiction.
The audience is exploited and exposed: coats and jackets paraded in a sarcastic fashion show, bags emptied and the contents displayed, and, whether or not you join in with the clapping – later reshown in a new context illustrating the ability of technology to misrepresent – or the dance, the uncomfortable feeling of manipulation prevails which really doesn’t need the trite and predictable showing of film of the Nuremberg rallies etc.
An uncomfortable evening which will no doubt, as ever with this company, have sewn seeds which will come back to haunt.