Tuesday 23 August 2011

Used and abused

Audience, St George’s West, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Whatever the merits or morals, outrage or otherwise at the start of the festival, Audience has since become inert. Too many people arrived braced or ready to take offence that it no longer contains the very thing it seeks to show, a real-life audience.

Let’s start by killing off an unhelpful misnomer: Audience is not interactive theatre. That would require dialogue, a genuine response to ours. Instead, it is a provocation and a reaction, which is, in turn, placed centre stage. An initial pinch, a resultant flinch and there the cycle stops. The problem is that, in order to be interesting, our reactions must be genuine. They need not necessarily be sincere, but they must be formulated in the moment, live, as a direct result of what we are watching. The moment that our ‘reaction’ becomes a pre-meditated action, Audience has failed. To survive, it needs to anticipate our expectations. Adapt or die, basically.

Audience begins by recounting the ‘rules’ audiences ought to obey – no talking, try not to cough too loudly, sleeping is allowed etc – before immediately breaking them. We’re told we always have a choice. With a camera filming us throughout, the piece attempts to push us into action (or inaction) in various ways: parading our clothes, displaying our possessions and making assumptions about us. We’re mocked, goaded, manipulated, reduced, belittled, used and abused.

On the night I saw it, one male audience member pre-empted its abuse, leaping to the defence of the girl being rounded on (rumoured to be a plant by this point) before she even had cause to squirm. From the stage, an actor singles her out for particularly rough treatment, telling her she’s ugly and unlovable, promising to stop as and when she opens her legs. The second the camera alights on her, our sanctimonious hero hops in front to protect the damsel not yet in distress. Coming so early, the company were left stumped with no alternative tactic to hand and the moment so dampened, our response became so irrelevant, that I had no qualms about taking £30 to start a chant: ‘Spread your legs. Spread your legs’. At that point, the money was the only thing with the same value outside the auditorium as in.

If we allow this particular section its provocative intention, however, as it must have originally worked, Ontroerend Goed have a win-win situation. If we act against them, they can point to the pretence; if not, to the reality. Heads they win, tails we lose.

This is the crux of Audience and, while it might seem improper to straitjacket an unsuspecting audience, it breaks no previous pact and remains perfectly legitimate. Audiences, after all, are prone to manipulation, whether by those in front of them or leading from within. We still have free will as individuals, but that must be tempered by the power of herd mentality. To act in public, to stand against the tide, takes more than to do so privately. It’s a point bludgeoned by a final montage of archive footage that shows us Nazi rallies and Beatlemaniacs. By opting for the obvious, Ontroerend Goed cheapen the whole.

All that said, Audience shouldn’t be exhaustively defined according to its most seemingly controversial moment. Undoubtedly it succeeds in throwing up ideas – some familiar, some original – about user-generated content and reality television, about the commercial exchange at theatre’s heart, about the need to form audiences, as well as the dangers, and about Pavlovian response, individuality, and inertia.

The camera is key here, for it instantly puts us on edge, self-conscious. Footage of our entrances, filmed secretly, shows us unguarded: a man pops his ticket in his mouth as searches for his seat, another comes mighty close to picking his nose. When the camera appears, however, everything changes. Hands that appear on screen flicker fingers as if confirming ownership. Tight-lipped smiles spread across faces. Heart-rates increase and, by the time we’re shown in wide-shot, we look like a model audience, the sort you see sat upright on Jeremy Kyle, behaving exactly as expected. We conform, performing the role of ‘audience’ and, in doing so, we become a simulacrum. In which case, perhaps there was never a real audience in the first place.


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