Take a good look at my face. Ontroerend Goed turns the spotlight on the audience

I know: everything has already been done before. But if you want to make a performance that focuses entirely on the audience, you’d better come up with something good. I trusted Belgian director Alexander Devriendt and his company Ontroerend Goed on this one, as they had knocked me out with two clever performances about teenagers, and as I especially remember their clever use of video during Teenage riot (review here). But unfortunately, Audience – which premiered yesterday during the opening night of The game is up (‘a festival that wants to break the rules’) at Vooruit (Ghent) – did disappoint me.

‘I hope they won’t pull me on stage’, somebody said, before it started. ‘I’ll go and sit in the middle of this row of seats. That will make it more difficult for them to get to me’, somebody else said. The first girl was lucky: nobody gets pulled on stage, during Audience. The second one was more unfortunate. By sitting in the middle, she sat right in the middle of the view of that camera that gets rolled on stage, when Audience begins.

Yes, after a brief and funny explanation of the basic rules of a theatre performance by an actress on stage, the lights go up on the audience and you are looking at yourself on that big video screen on stage. When the camera zooms in on a face, actors phrase the thoughts that person might be having. Later on those same actors parade on stage with some of the coats that were left by the audience at the door, a couple of bags even get emptied on the floor. ‘A Moleskine agenda! A cell phone! Fresh underwear!’ And a voice tells us: ’51 of you came alone, there’s one group of 7, 120 of you came here with a free ticket.’

And then, of course, one member of the audience gets singled out. The actor on stage verbally assaults her, in an attempt to see how far he can go before somebody tells him to stop. Later on he urges her to spread her legs (for the camera) and even ‘bribes’ other members of the audience to say it too: spread your legs! spread your legs!

A loud mix of songs tries to get a party going. We get shouting actors, confetti and fireworks. And when the party is over, two members of the audience are interviewed, by a ‘reporter’ standing in the middle of the audience, as in a live intervention on the news. As if this was Egypt’s Tahrir Square. As if this was history in the making. And in the end we get to watch loads of images of big crowds during historic moments, as if to emphasize the power of a crowd. And then one single word on that screen tells us what to do: applaud.

A long long time ago a singer complimented me in an unforgettable way, right after an interview. ‘Your questions made my head, my heart and my tummy think’, she said. That is the feeling I got from watching Ontroerend Goed’s Teenage riot. That’s why that performance was such an overwhelming experience. And that’s why Audience disappoints me.

It tries to be different, and it IS different, but just by means of the setting. I didn’t make me feel or think something I hadn’t experienced before, about theatre or audiences. In a way it resembles a comedian’s stand up performance, by merely trying to be clever and funny. I’m sure quite a few people will like it, just because they will have experienced something different, boisterous and unruly. But I had expected more. More food for thought.

More info here. More info about ‘The game is up’ here.

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