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After far too much time to think…

Are you taking the piss?

The roles of performer and audience at the Edinburgh Fringe 2009

The first page of Peter Brooks’ The Empty Space includes the famous lines: “a man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged”. But what if that man then grabbed an audience member’s throat, his other fist raised? What then? Would we sit passively, assuming this was part of the performance and therefore safe, or would we stand up to him? If we stay seated, what would it take us to act?

At the Edinburgh Fringe 2009, audiences were challenged, humiliated, abused and even egged. But not only have they put up with it, some of the most popular shows have been those which have taken the most liberties. So is this where theatre is or should be going? Is it enough for a piece of the theatre to challenge its audience? Are there any rules that should govern what a performance is allowed to do to its audience? And are there limits to what a performer should be allowed to subject them self to?

I am aware that these are issues that I will not be able to provide definitive answers for, especially as I am a student in a department that has people who know a lot more about them than I do. My intension is rather to take a few cases from the Fringe and use them as points of departure for discussion.


The Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s (of The Smile of Your Face and Once and For All We’re Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen Fringe fame) offering, Internal, seems a good place to start a discussion of the roles of performer and audience. I should warn that if you are able to see it you should simply go as soon as you can, as any knowledge of it will detract from the experience.

From the piece’s name it was possible to tell that this would be a claustrophobic and intrusive affair. But the description going round was of “speed dating with five performers and five audience”, which sounded like it would probably be a comedy, knowing the Fringe. No. The piece began with the five audience members being lined up in front of a curtain. This then rose, and the performers were immediately on the other side, staring you in the face. This literal confrontation symbolised the general tone. Each performer chose their partner and led them to their booths with its own alcohol.

Rather than adopting a character, the performers had set agendas. I have gathered from friends that Uri raised insecurities with probing questions such as “why did your boyfriend break up with you?” – someone who had Uri went on a two day bender as a result – Oli made all women besotted, Marie was generally nice, and Christof showed pictures of his penis. I decided to go along with suggestion and we flirted through mirrored body language and touch, culminating in a kiss. By then the others had gone to a circle of chairs opposite the booth and could see through the gauze of the booth. Like everyone else I have spoken to about the piece, a part of me seemed like a detached observer despite participating, and the other was helplessly taken in.

Once in the circle, the performers asked each other what they thought of their partners. They were clinical, their answers in accordance to their agendas; Uri said his partner was cold and resistant, and Oli that he had felt a click. While in the booths, each of the performers other than my partner had asked their partners to take them on an imaged holiday. These were now described to the circle. The audience felt exposed by being evaluated and by what they had thought was private being made public. Then Marie’s partner was asked to prove that they liked her: Marie leaned in and kissed him. He said “that’s the first time I’ve kissed anyone but my girlfriend in seven years, and she’s sat right there.” This raised the question of whether the kiss was a transgression or if it was permissible, being part of a piece of theatre. Towards the end, my partner turned to me and undid her dress to reveal her breasts and asked “is this was you wanted to see?” Considering we had come to a piece in which we knew we would be speed dating, I suppose this line was a kind of synopsis of the piece. In some cases, however, it was not what people wanted to see. One friend had my partner but was a straight woman, and another had a girlfriend, and in both cases they were unable to participate and had to simply sit awkwardly. This could either be seen as part of the piece or as a failing.

Despite an apparently high level of involvement, the audience only really had one choice: whether or not to play along. Ontroerend Goed had studied a book called The Game, which teaches seduction, and they were very good at it. Play along, and they would get you. Whether this was moral or right was for the audience to decide. The performers simply pursued their objectives. In doing so, they implicitly raised a number of questions, such as “what is to separate this from mild prostitution?” But more importantly, they asked how deeply will we allow a work of theatre to get its teeth into us, and what compromises of our ‘normal behaviour’ are we prepared to make in the name of theatre.

If people will bear with me, I hope to use a few more examples to explore this subject soon, though I aim to make those much shorter.

Conor Whelan