THE HOT SEAT
Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed specialises in confrontation. So, writes Darryn King, if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the theatre
EVEN for a hardened theatre critic, anticipating a production from Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed is an exhilarating agony, a feeling somewhere between waiting for a blind date and a dental appointment. These are shows in which audience members have been seduced, deceived, betrayed and bullied. They have been blindfolded, scrutinised and spied on, kissed passionately and pitted against one another.
Some have wondered if it can even accurately be called theatre.
“I always like that discussion,” says artistic director Alexander Devriendt. “It happens a lot in England. The worst thing you can do to an art form is limit its scope. So I always see it as a compliment, that — wow — it’s still possible to question that.”
From its earliest performances, Ontroerend Goed set out to shake up the idea of performance as a passive pleasure. Its target at the time was the “least experimental medium” of poetry reading. “There was this beautiful possibility of messing around with how you did it.”
In time, Ontroerend Goed was staging readings in which Devriendt was strangled on stage to the point of passing out. It was “really weird”, he says. But he didn’t think of it as theatre until the company was invited to stage the show at a theatre festival.
“We just kind of rolled into it. Suddenly we were a theatre business and suddenly we got money to make theatre. I remember I was confused about it. We did two plays that were still experimental while we were still trying to grasp what it was we wanted to do. We didn’t want to follow what we knew and saw around us.”
It was from that philosophical outlook that Devriendt and Ontroerend Goed began developing a show called The Smile Off Your Face, consciously kicking against accepted notions and conventions of theatre.
“Normally you’re in a group of people — let’s make it one. Normally you’re immobile in a chair — let’s make you mobile. The ideas grew out of this idea of treating it like a playground.”
Most significantly, The Smile Off Your Face turned each participant into the protagonist of his own experience. They were seated in wheelchairs and conveyed into a succession of rooms for intense one-on-one interactions with actors. It was a multisensory bombardment that left people rattled and thrilled. Devriendt’s role in the show was looking into the eyes of each participant and weeping genuine tears.
“It was just this trick — irritating my eyes, purely technical. But from the moment it happened, the reaction always made it real. It was a theatre experience invoking an emotion that became a real emotion.”
It was and is theatre, but the art form at its boiling point: distinctly live, unique to that moment, charged with unpredictability and aiming straight for catharsis.
Since the success of The Smile Off Your Face, the company has become a fixture on the inter- national theatre festival circuit, with rotating casts touring productions throughout the world. This month alone it is presenting shows in Australia, France, Germany and Belgium.
Devriendt and Ontroerend Goed have developed an especially close relationship with the Sydney Theatre Company, with which they presented Once and for All We’re Going To Tell
You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, a boisterous symphony of meticulously orchestrated chaos, and The History of Everything, a crash course on the cosmos that ran in rewind.
Fight Night, a collaboration with Adelaide ensemble the Border Project, marks the first time Ontroerend Goed has brought its singular take on audience interactivity to the STC. The show is an experiment in reality television-style democracy that, unusually for Ontroerend Goed, hands the power over to the spectators, in this case the power to vote performers off the stage. Generally, it’s the audience at the mercy of the theatre company. A typical performance, for example, of Inter
nal — a show in which every participant is paired with a performer for a clandestine date — features the sort of action you might indeed expect from a romantic rendezvous. Actors and audience hold hands, slow-dance and smooch. Some theatregoers even receive heartfelt, hand- written billet-doux from their new theatrical acquaintances weeks after the performance.
Unsurprisingly, audience members come away deeply affected by their half-hour of fullon human connection. Devriendt smiles sheepishly when it is suggested the show might have attracted a certain amount of Ontroerend Goed groupies. “Yes, of course. I was trying to evade that question. We even provoke it sometimes. I do have to say some actors abuse that power a bit too much. But that’s the essence of Internal. In half an hour, how fast you can care about someone is just beautiful.”
The company’s work hasn’t always been warmly received. At the Edinburgh Festival premiere of a new Ontroerend Goed production in 2011, the audience’s clothes and personal belongings were brought out of the cloakroom and paraded on stage, and a young woman in the stalls was singled out by a video camera and told to spread her legs.
Even reviewers who got Ontroerend Goed’s sociological experiment — the show was simply called Audience — decided the overall effect was reprehensible. From then on, the part of the audience member was (sort of) secretly played by an actress. “I didn’t want to take that risk any more,” Devriendt says.
Still, he continues to defend his right to discomfit and confront. In Devriendt’s theatre, unease is worthwhile. “I always say if art is not challenging, why bother? If it doesn’t hurt another person, I’m OK with it. Especially in the boundaries of theatre where, however real it feels, it’s still a metaphor.
“I always try to find something in theatre that makes you feel that live aspect of it; that experience that makes it tangible and meaningful to come to the theatre and want to be there, which isn’t translatable to another medium.”
Except that audiences now expect the unexpected. Perhaps Ontroerend Goed may be approaching the stage where the most subversive show it could do would be a conventional version of Shakespeare. “One day …” Devriendt begins, before abandoning the fantasy with a chuckle. “No, I won’t. No. Sorry.”
Fight Night is on at Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, from March 13 to 16, then Sydney’s Wharf Theatre from March 20 to April 13.
Ontroerend Goed and Border Project in Fight Night, main picture and below