Monday 5 August 2013

We need to talk about democracy

Fight Night, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2013

It’s only really been 200 years since the idea of democracy started to take hold. Before that, we had any number of other systems - monarchism, feudalism, tribalism - which each had their respective pros and cons. In terms of the wide sweep of human history, it’s only fairly recently that we’ve decided a consensus democracy is a Good Thing. And of course, it is. To an extent. But as Ontroerend Goed demonstrate in Fight Night, it has its flaws just like any other system. Time to start talking about it.

(Word of warning. This review is a bit spoiler-y, so perhaps best to read once you’ve seen the show if you plan to.)

The premise is simple: as we enter, each audience member is given a keypad, with which we will vote over various rounds as five candidates get whittled down to one. Our initial votes are based solely on appearance. Then we vote after the candidates give a short speech and tell us their age and relationship status. Coalitions form, loyalties are made, consensus shifts.

These first few rounds are simple enough, and ease us into things by asking us to make snap decisions based on very little info. Slowly, the game becomes more complex, as we begin to question why we vote for leaders when partaking in elections. The ‘blind round’ gives options based on personal qualities (‘Which word do you find most offensive’, ‘How would you describe yourself’, etc), and found myself voting for the ones which were most like me. Do we all look for elements of ourselves in our leaders? Or do we vote based purely on ideas? That’s assuming, of course, that the two are mutually exclusive.

At this stage, the question which perhaps sums up the fundamental problem with our version of democracy is asked: ‘Do you trust the majority of this audience?’ The tone suddenly shifts, and with only three candidates remaining things become more serious. The performers start using the rhetoric of politicians (‘I’m very happy you asked me that question…’ and ‘First of all, congratulations…’) and we are reminded that each candidate is rehearsed. The dogmas and entrenched opinions that they - and by extension we - hold start to become more obvious.

At this stage, I started to question the very validity of this vote, as the figures shown on the screen started to become rounded numbers rather than being decimalised as they were before. Here, it’s difficult not to look back and think ‘Have my votes counted for anything at all? Or is this whole thing rigged?’ It becomes tempting to stop voting, but I made a point to continue to hold a stake in the democratic process. Otherwise, why am I here?

(It’s probably good to mention at this point that, after talking to various people, these rounded figures were unique to the evening I saw the show, meaning that it’s probably not rigged. It also seems that audiences do vote differently each night and, though the whole thing follows a script of sorts, it’s not the same people who progress. I do definitely think there’s some truths being withheld, however, and this only adds to the way in which Fight Night comments on the democratic system, which gives us a taste of choice without ever handing us all the facts.)

The point at which the show becomes really interesting happens when the three remaining candidates give us a trio of options, which basically boil down to your fundamental views about democracy. One asks us to think ideologically, to imagine the power behind all voting for her if we just believe everyone else will, utilising the democratic system but placing on top of it a real tone of hope. Counter to this is the option to abstain from voting, first by pressing ‘9’ and then by handing in our devices, rejecting the system itself. The third option is what could be called the ‘realist’ vote, which recognises the flaws in the system but implores us to use it to make the world better.

Things escalate pretty quickly from there. I decided to hand in my device and then, when invited, to ‘occupy’ the stage to register my dissent. Of course, I was following a candidate just like anyone else, but I had found myself superimposing my general views about democracy and ‘The System’ onto the events in the space, and this seemed the most like What I’d Do. There’s a slight problem, of course, in that many anti-mainstream movements like Occupy don’t actually have leaders, preferring instead to rule by consensus rather than representative democracy, but the act of dissenting remains the same in both contexts.

The audience members still in their seats with keypads are then asked to ‘Vote for your right to vote’, and it’s hard at this time to not feel a bit bad about sitting on the stage. Because, of course, I do believe in my right to vote. But not here, in this system which seemed, to me, to be corrupt and failing. What we’re doing when dissenting is not rejecting outright the system of democracy. We’re just rejecting this system, which only seeks to follow the status quo and maintain order.

Then, extraordinarily, the audience voted for those of us sat on the stage to leave. Fair enough, I guess, but what’s so terrifying about it is that one group of people is telling another people what to do. It shows how easily the majority can gang up on the minority when threatened, and the overlap between democracy and autocracy. Democracy is all well and good, but only when you form a part of the majority.

Company: Ontroerend Goed
Venue: Traverse, until 25th August
Time: Various


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


The Stage
Theatreland’s newspaper

Theatre Monkey
What theatregoers tell you that box-office staff do not

National Theatre
What’s on: plays, exhibitions, music

Royal Shakespeare Company
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet


Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.