Soho Theatre, London, Thursday 5th January, 2011
Belgian theatre company Ontorerend Goed’s new show got Edinburgh buzzing during the festival last year. Apparently.
The performance began with the female member of the troupe (Maria Dafernos) making a public service announcement with the houselights up. We must switch off our mobile phones. We must not cough. That kind of thing. But the longer the speech went on the more patronising – and therefore funnier – it became. We were instructed how to clap, how to give a standing ovation… So far, so good.
The performance space was dominated by a huge white screen. A man wheeled a TV camera centre-stage, pointing at us the increasingly nervous audience. He showed details of individuals, magnified huge, a shoulder here, a hand on a leg there… before long he was zooming in on faces. Behind the screen, actors voiced the “thoughts” of each person – most of which involved giggling and speculation about what was in store.
Inevitably, the camera lit on me. There was my face, splashed large on the fabric. It was excruciatingly embarrassing. My Englishness was mortified. The camera could not move on to someone else fast enough. Worse than that, we had been filmed coming in. Candid and off-guard moments were blazoned for all to see. You could feel the air tightening with cringes.
The cast paraded across the stage wearing coats that were handed into the cloakroom on the way in. They emptied the contents of handbags onto the floor. A betrayal of trust and a chance of public humiliation – but it was to get more unpleasant than that.
A generic TV host type figure walked out and encouraged us all to applaud just the way he liked and we, obedient members of the pack, followed his instructions perfectly. Then he rounded on a girl on the front row. He said she had ruined it, that she was worthless and ugly. He called her Fuckface and several other things beside. All while her reaction was broadcast on the big screen for all to see. We were invited to speak out and save her blushes. Or we could chant for her to spread her legs. Of course, this latter was not an option; no one was going to chant such a thing, not even for the ready money with which the host tried to bribe individuals. I don’t know how this goes on other nights, but the audience I was in wasn’t going to let things turn too nasty.
Seated among us, the other three actors stood and defended our inaction, offering explanations. Then they tried to get us to put our hands in the air, to stand, to dance… All the sort of behaviour audiences are exhorted to do at concerts, for example. At this point, we didn’t know whether to join in, and be berated for following the herd, or to sit still and be singled out for questioning. I chose to squirm in my seat, willing myself to become invisible.
A truly agonising and uncomfortable experience, Audience is like one of those outlawed psychology experiments of the 1960s. It nudges at issues of mob mentality and mass hysteria and the surrender of individuality in order to conform to established conventions and majority rule, but while it half-forms questions it doesn’t offer any conclusion other than to put us through the mill, suggesting we are like the crowd on the football terrace, or Nazis at a rally. It may have been the toast of the Edinburgh festival but rather than finding it provocative, hilarious or exhilarating, I was just glad when the ordeal was over.