Brutal theatre rips off the mask of normality
Alexander Devriendt was at a stand-up show with his girlfriend a few years ago when the comedian on stage unexpectedly turned on her, calling her a bitch and telling her to sweep up the stage, since that was all she was good for.
She professed not to mind, but Devriendt was infuriated, not least because he couldn’t retaliate. “Because it would seem like I wasn’t getting the joke. I hated that feeling,” he says, still bristling. “I felt so unmanly.”
That experience fed directly into Audience, Devriendt’s latest project with the Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed. The show examines crowd behaviour, testing the extent to which people retain their individual identity and beliefs and how easily their thought processes can be manipulated by those around them.
One scene, in particular, stunned and appalled audiences at this year’s Edinburgh festival: performer Matthieu Sys trained a video camera on a young woman in the audience and began to insult her, telling the rest of the audience that he would stop when she spread her legs.
“Is it shocking? Yes,” says Devriendt. “But I wanted a moment where the audience has to make a choice—even if it makes a decision not to intervene, it’s a decision.”
Pushing the boundaries
The creation of the scene was itself contentious. Maria Dafneros, the only female performer in the piece, recalls: “We looked at what we could do to divide the audience. When we decided on ‘spread your legs’, I said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s sexual harassment. We cannot do that.’ ”
But the fact that Dafneros was so repulsed by the idea was what persuaded her that it would work.
Ontroerend Goed—the name is tricky to translate, as it plays on both “immovable goods” and “deeply moving stuff”, in the emotional sense—has previously caused controversy.
In Internal, which it brought to Edinburgh in 2009, performers took audience members one-to-one into private booths and seduced them into revealing personal details about themselves, only to witness these being broadcast for all to hear in the second part of the show.
Devriendt has always sought to test the boundaries of what people will consider acceptable. As a teenager, he was expelled from school for publishing a magazine satirising his teachers. His favourite hangout at the time was an alternative jazz-poetry club in Ghent. It was here that he befriended Ontroerend Goed’s other founder members.
But it wasn’t until 2005 that Devriendt began to think of Ontroerend Goed as a theatre company.
The turning point was The Smile Off Your Face: “The idea for that was to change the whole experience of theatre. Normally you’re with 100 people: [with us] you’re alone. Normally you’re immobile: let’s make you mobile. Normally you can see: let’s take that away.”
In this piece audience members were blindfolded and bound to a wheelchair, then had each of their senses teased before a final unsettling moment of intimacy with a performer. The goal was to “show how your view of the world is mostly a projection of your inner world”.
Devriendt thinks that audiences who feel manipulated might be shying away from a fact of modern life: in a world of political spin and untrustworthy media, “we are being manipulated all the time”.—