Bel­gium’s On­troerend Goed spe­cialises in con­fronta­tion. So, writes Dar­ryn King, if you can’t han­dle the heat, get out of the theatre

The Weekend Australian - Review - - 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

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