Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Audience turns its back on theatrical convention to turn the camera on the audience and question how the audience interacts with theatre. While Audience is conceptually intriguing and well executed, it isn’t an easy ride and includes a very questionable scene.
As the audience takes its seats, the stage is bare and a young woman stands in front of it to address us. As if we’re first-time theatre goers she gives us guidelines about being an audience. We’re told that we stay in our seats, that the actors stay on the stage and don’t leave or take a break for food and drink . We’re told that when actors ask questions we don’t respond – their questions are part of the play or rhetorical. We’re instructed about the clapping convention and about standing ovations. Leaving before the end of the performance for any reason is discussed, a complex and altogether sensitive issue. A set of guidelines for theatre goers, which we know but which are never usually so explicitly stated, are presented – only to be broken down and pulled apart throughout the show.
There’s a huge white backdrop and a young man dressed in black with his camera trained on us. Initially the camera pans over the audience and then lingers longer exploring us one by one, with actors among the audience commenting on individuals. Various techniques and viewpoints are taken to explore us the audience; we are centre stage and as much part of the show as the actors themselves. The contents of handbags are dissected; audience members are questioned.
In any theatre performance, essentially the audience is manipulated but generally part of the success of a performance is that our suspension of disbelief allows us to be oblivious to the manipulation. By putting the audience under the spotlight so explicitly, Ontroerend Goed challenges this convention and explores the ideas implicit within it. First of all, they draw our attention to the uniqueness of each and everyone of us, and then gradually to how we as individuals behave in a crowd and are redefined and assimilated by the crowd. How the crowd impacts on our behaviour becomes particularly pertinent as the actors’ behaviour towards the audience becomes increasingly unpleasant. The theatrical guidelines we have been given stand us in good stead so that we stand by as fellow. audience members are treated badly and do not intervene. However, as this goes on we begin to question the guidelines we’re abiding by and our moral responsibility as an audience
Audience challenges our preconceptions about being passive spectators of a performance. However, challenging is good, morally offensive is not. There’s an episode where the show crosses a line – and it has to cross a line in order to provoke and to challenge – but is the way they do this morally justifiable? I think not. Essentially it targets a young, attractive woman and bullies her in a sexually implicit way. My concern is not with the sexually explicit material – sexually explicit can be used appropriately in theatre – my concern is with the treatment of the young woman. Frankly, in my book this qualifies as sexism and has no place in this show, or indeed in any other. Had the audience member been black or disabled, quite rightly there would have been outrage. Increasingly, it seems that within our society the treatment of women as sexual commodities has once again become acceptable. The actors then go on to admit that they’ve crossed a line and to explore the reasons for doing so, and within the context of the show the question is how complicit we as an audience are in allowing it to happen. Nonetheless, for that woman at that time the experience was very real and very uncomfortable. The night I was in the young woman seemed well able to handle it, but for someone more vulnerable this could be a deeply unsettling and damaging experience.
Much of this show is intriguing and challenging. Conceptually, it’s novel and explores ideas which while not novel in themselves find new ground to explore in theatrical convention. It was well executed and thought through, it took us on a journey of exploration of individual and collective responsibility. All this could have been achieved without the inclusion of an episode that was both sexist and morally repugnant.