Audiences never have it easy at a production by Ontroerend Goed, the Belgian theatre company that’s amassed Fringe Firsts and courted controversy since they burst onto the Edinburgh scene in 2008 with their teenage rebel yell, Once and For All We’re Going to Tell You Who You Are So Shut Up and Listen.
But in this latest offering, as the title suggests, it really is all about the audience. As the piece begins, a young woman explains “in case you haven’t been before”, the rules – or, rather, guidelines – for theatregoing, all of which are tested, strained and gleefully ripped to shreds as the evening progresses.
A video camera pans across the stalls, reflecting us back at ourselves via a large onstage screen. The camera homes in on individual faces as actors “read” our private thoughts. Bags and coats are rifled through in a stat-heavy fashion show. Instructions for finger applause are given and obeyed. A replay shows us what we look like when we think we’re not being watched. It’s embarrassingly compelling narcissism.
But when a suave host starts to pick on a young woman in the front row, insulting and then sexually taunting her, the mood darkens. Members of the audience protest, more and more vehemently. A man clambers out of the second row to bash the camera away from the victim.
Members of the company, installed in amongst the audience, at once attempt to calm and stoke opposing reactions, a debate ensues, a rally entices some theatregoers up onto their feet again, fists pumping. Whatever choices you make, you will be left feeling manipulated and unsettled by the experience – and, I’m sure, deeply divided about whether this is a good or a bad thing.
Either way, in a week when riots are erupting in London and other UK cities, Ontroerend’s Edinburgh experiment in the power of group-think takes on added significance. It could not be more timely.
(London theatregoers will be able to decide for themselves when Audience transfers to Soho Theatre this December.)