Friday, 9 December 2011

scratching at the surface of ontroerend goed

Note for anyone who hasn't seen Audience and is planning to attend the run at Soho: please be aware that I give away heaps about the show, so if you want to go in completely fresh, don't read this until after you've seen it. Thanks!

What a slippery bunch of people Ontroerend Goed are. Before I met up with their artistic director, Alexander Devriendt, I was warned to beware: he's an arch seducer, who would fix me with his soulful brown eyes and hypnotise me. I left the interview secure in the knowledge that I was immune to his charms, and wondering idly whether his eyes perhaps weren't brown but hazel-green.

I haven't seen all of their work, for two reasons: they arrived in the UK while I was distracted by pregnancy and the implacable demands of small children; plus their shows required a level of audience participation that made me shrink. I'm mostly too fearful a theatre-goer (and, more consistently, too much of a control freak) to submit to being bound, blindfolded and steered around in a wheelchair, as you are in The Smile Off Your Face, too gullible to risk the sweet-talk of Internal.

So it wasn't until 2010, and the run of Teenage Riot in Edinburgh, that I caught up with, if not OG, at least Devriendt. And I hated Teenage Riot, so much so that I wrote a post-script to Lyn Gardner's review detailing everything I felt to be wrong with the show. What infuriated and saddened me was the sexism, the MTV-fuelled vision of women as semi-clad playthings and anorexics, and the teenagers' willingness to promote that vision. Even when they spat in the face of the audience for “creating” this sexualised adult culture, or appeared to be rejecting it, they did so in a fashion that merely underscored their acceptance. When two of the girls started to give earnest advice on how not to gain weight, I thought of all the teenagers watching who might go home and put their tips into action, and wanted to scream. This was the gender status quo masquerading as audacious subversion, and I wanted nothing to do with it. (Recently I unearthed Matt Trueman's typically penetrating review of the show on Carousel of Fantasies and began to see the shortcomings in my bridling response, but that's another story.)

It was that disappointment, more than apprehension, that disinclined me to engage with OG until the second incarnation of BAC's One-on-One festivals earlier this year. What persuaded me was word-of-mouth at the first One-on-One: anyone who took part in A Game of You talked about it with a huge grin on their face, and declared it the hit of the night. Perhaps inevitably, part of me was disappointed again when I finally joined in – although less by the show itself than my involvement in it. I didn't give myself to it; I was reserved, reluctant to speak.

Some of that was down to mental discomfort: throughout I felt watched and judged. You enter and sit in a cramped and stifling curtained space, facing an empty glass jug and an oversized mirror that – I intuitively knew – conceals people sitting behind it. When a man came in and began talking to me, I barely said a word. If I remember rightly, in the next room I had to watch and discuss a recording of myself in front of the mirror. My response to each question was evasive: I didn't want anything I said to be used against me, so I kept as much as I could to myself. Further along, I watched another performer impersonate me while I sat behind the mirror of the first room, and the incompleteness of the taciturn character I saw made me feel oddly wistful.

At the heart of all this naval-gazing is another room, possibly the most interesting and excruciating of the whole scenario. Here I watched a recording of another audience member sitting in the first room. The performer who sat with me asked what I thought she did for a living, about her personal life, what I thought her house was like. Answering the questions, I felt painfully divided. On the one hand, how could I possibly know anything about this woman? All I could do was construct wayward surmises from her appearance, which seemed an absurd, even malicious thing to do. On the other hand, something about her sleek hair, mousy but with blonde highlights, her enviably nice, smart-casual brown dress, subtly detailed around the neckline, her generally neat appearance, her soft face, her failure to notice that the jug was empty until she tried to pour a drink, gave me the irresistible impression that she was utterly ditzy, that she worked in admin but frequently made mistakes, and that her personal life was a concatenation of failed relationships. I was appalled by the belittling thoughts in my head: under no circumstances could I voice them, even in the privacy of that little room. So I hedged and I fudged and still managed to sound pretty nasty and judgmental, chiefly because she had sleek, mousy-blonde hair.

Fast-forward to the final bit of the show, and I'm handed a CD: on it is written “About you”. My stomach lurched as I guessed that this was a recording of someone else talking about me in that treacherous enclosed space. And that I, too, had been recorded. And that the sleek-haired woman would be handed her own CD, and would hear all the demeaning things I'd said. Part of me was horrified: no one wants to hear themselves being put down. And part of me was thrilled by the transgression: there would be no retribution, because she would never know that the speaker was me.

For months afterwards, my CD sat on my desk: I couldn't bring myself to listen. But in the week before travelling to Edinburgh for the festival I finally plucked up the courage, and was startled. The woman talking about me was adorable. She guessed that I write, that I'm a perfectionist, that I have a controlling streak, that I am far more vain than I would admit to being; she guessed that I was putting off children for the sake of work (which is how my life would be if I had been left to my own devices); that I live in a house without junk or clutter (although that's only true because my husband makes me tidy up). There was such kindness and generosity in her portrait of me: a kindness and generosity I had failed to demonstrate or even locate within myself.

The more I mused on the unknown woman who had talked about me, the unknown woman about whom I had talked, the various images of myself, both self-generated and generated by others, the more I appreciated what Ontroerend Goed had achieved. A Game of You made me completely rethink, then rethink again and again, over the course of several months, how I present myself, how people understand that presentation, how I understand other people's projections of self, and how entire social structures are built from those projections. And it does so without even seeming to – by playing a cheeky little game that lasts barely 20 minutes. What an extraordinary, subtle piece of work.

It was with all this in my head that I arrived at Audience, OG's new show in Edinburgh. That, and the crackling of a furore already surrounding the show following early performances, most of which I'd managed to block out, although not enough that I didn't feel horribly apprehensive about taking part. I find traverse theatre intimidating enough (perhaps it's sheer egoism that makes me fear I'm being watched at all times), let alone being filmed and seeing my image projected in remorseless close-up. And yet, as the camera began its slow sweep across the room, what struck me wasn't the aggression of its attention but the gentleness. It picked up the flare of a sleeve, the mottled pink-and-white skin of tensely clenched fingers, the flickering of a nervous mouth trying not to smile: tiny details, so insignificant, but made beautiful by the camera's concentrated caress.

And then comes the ugliness: the moment of division. The camera is trained on a young woman sitting near the front, someone radiant yet unobtrusive – unlike the raucous women sitting at the other end of her row, pretty but brash, noisily laughing – and one of the performers begins verbally abusing her. It's astonishingly uncomfortable, but electrifying too, at least on the night I saw it, because barely had the abuse begun when a man sitting behind me stood up and hurled a boot at the performer, with an aim almost true. As others in the audience began to clamour for the performer to stop, part of me felt annoyed: I wanted to see where OG were going. As it happened, where they were going was a place I found utterly repulsive, and I was relieved when the OG performers moved the show on – despite the audience's obstreperous desire to continue arguing over this scene.

Even as I watched, I had a sense that what had needed to happen had happened: that someone had reacted, strongly, but that the show wasn't about that reaction any more than it was about that provocation. What followed was an interrogation of intervention, of what we will stand up for and against, individually and as a group, in a variety of contexts. As the audience continued to grumble, I wondered how many of the people in the room had sat in, I don't know, the Royal Court, and watched silently as a woman was raped or abused. How many had witnessed couples arguing in the street, women crying as men raged at them, and walked on by. As a spin-doctored political debate was staged by the performers, as music blared and we were encouraged to stand up and dance, as the images of the audience melted into archive film of rallies and dissent and dictators and liberal leaders, I wondered how we choose to behave the way we do, whether we behave the same regardless of context, whether we're aware of influence and wholly able to resist it. I thought about the rioters who had torn through London just a few nights before: who was leading, who was following? Why was it so difficult to maintain a clear personal response to their actions? How can one maintain a sense of self within society? What is that self anyway?

By the end of the show I felt as though I was vibrating – it's the first time in ages, really ages, when I haven't just earwigged other people's conversations in the foyer afterwards but asked them what they thought. What I discovered was that I was very much in a minority in loving the show. What most people said to me – comments echoed by Lyn Gardner when I spoke to her a couple of days later – was that they thought the political content was naff, that the real meat of the show was in that attack on the girl and everything that followed was heavy-handed and sentimental. Immediately I worried: had I just not been smart enough to see the show's weaknesses? That nervousness is yet to leave me (another thing I hate about myself), although I felt a lot better after reading Joyce McMillan's positive review and finding I wasn't totally alone.

Since talking to Ontroerend Goed, I've wondered whether the naivety those audience members reacted against doesn't generate directly from Devriendt. We were, admittedly, both performing in the interview, and there is, of course, the strong possibility that I was unwittingly mesmerised by him, but even so, there seemed to be something disarmingly ingenuous about him, a softness that I hadn't expected. Some things he said that have stayed with me: he is the accident child of a painter (father) and a businesswoman; Joeri Smet, his best friend and collaborator in OG, describes him as a weird combination of their artistic and commercial natures. He is genuinely, deeply affected by reviews, taking every criticism to heart. Talking about the attack on the girl in Audience, he told me about the night his girlfriend was similarly abused by a comedian: he wanted to react, “but if I would have I would be the laughing stock because it would seem I was not getting the joke. And I hated that feeling, I felt so unmanly: I didn't protect my girlfriend. My girlfriend said, 'Hey, I can handle it.' I was like, yes, but my cavalier feeling, my white knight, I couldn't be. I wanted to have the opportunity for an audience to be a white knight, I wanted to give that freedom.” I've put what he said more or less verbatim, for one because it seemed so extraordinary to me, both absurd from a feminist point of view, and curiously romantic in its fairy-tale sense of manhood; and because it's clear to me that this is exactly what that scene in Audience is about: inviting a man to behave like a white knight, to throw a boot at the performer and save the pretty girl. No wonder the women around me were so infuriated when they weren't allowed space to speak; come to that, why wasn't I? The gendering is retrograde and ridiculous. Contrarily, I like Maria Dafneros' point of view: she resisted the scene during rehearsals, performs her disapproval during the course of the show, and wonders whether, “These guys that get up and say, 'stop it, leave her alone', I don't know if they realise that they take her choice away. One girl actually said afterwards, 'What if I wanted to spread my legs? Let me do that.' But they were not busy with that, they were busy with another issue, whatever it was.”

Another thing Devriendt said, or at least intimated, that continues to play on my mind is that he feels a sense of guilt about Internal, troubled that so many people felt betrayed by the show. A Game of You, he said, was specifically designed in response to those adverse reactions: “I'm really protective of you,” he says of audiences in A Game of You, “I don't break the trust of audience there – and I found a way to be more confronting because nobody will have seen that you didn't give enough, nobody knows what you have experienced there.” In the moment of him talking about this, I agreed with him absolutely; then walking home from the interview I thought of the girl I had talked about morosely listening to her CD and felt duped. Again, reading Matt Trueman on A Game of You was usefully clarifying: he argues that it isn't individual personalities being scrutinised but the act of judgment. But then his response came straight from his response to Internal, and it's not one that I, in all my guilt and tendency to self-criticism, feel wholly able to share.

A question hangs over Ontroerend Goed, raised by Ian Shuttleworth in the comments below Lyn's brief piece on Audience published during the festival: are they actually in control of what they do? Do they realise the extent to which they affect people? Lyn is convinced that they are, that Devriendt is an arch manipulator who knows exactly what he's doing. Reading Matt on Teenage Riot – which Devriendt essentially forced him to see again, to watch through his own (ie Devriendt's imposed) perspective – inclines me to agree with her. And yet, when Devriendt talked about protecting people in A Game of You, there was no sense of him accounting for those CDs at the end – a lot of people, Lyn tells me, never pluck up the courage to listen to theirs. When he talked about people feeling betrayed by Internal, he said: “I should have seen that one coming.” His tone was properly rueful: he felt bamboozled, and stupid, and disappointed in himself. When I asked him whether Audience wasn't perhaps compromised by the fact that so many people were coming in knowing what to expect, and intending to intervene, he confessed he had been caught out by that, too.

Something else that has stayed with me, although we didn't talk about it, was a line I read in another interview with Devriendt: “Joeri wanted to live in Berlin [when they were in their very early 20s] and I begged him not to go, because I felt I needed him to create amazing work. He stayed.” Whereas Devriendt struck me as open and genuine, Joeri Smet seemed contained, a little bit intimidating, someone to be approached with caution. Perhaps I felt this because of his role in Audience: he's the performer whose political speech, bland at first, increasingly firebrand, ends in a Nazi salute. There was something Smet said about Internal, when we had finished talking but the recorder was still running, that intrigues me: “It made me love people more.” Had he not loved them very much before?

In his way, Devriendt is as inscrutable as Smet. The work they make together demands that you take long, hard looks at yourself, yet offers no respite if you don't like what you see. Before the interview, one of my key questions, the one I was most looking forward to asking, was what their shows have taught them about themselves. I spoke to four people from the company – Devriendt, Smet, Dafneros and Tiemen Van Haver, coincidentally the person who guided me around A Game of You (and who told me that when he's appeared in that show as an audience member, filling in gaps, three people have described him as gay, teaching him once and for all to take the things people say about him with a big handful of salt) – and not one of them answered me straight. Smet came closest: “If it works, people really want to share things with you. You hear life stories or choices that people are struggling with you that reflect on you as well, because you have the same question or struggle. Then after a while you, I, ask the questions that really interest me, so I get a lot of answers to that same question.” What those questions or struggles were, though, he didn't say. Otherwise, what they all talked about was what they had learned about other cultures, about group mechanisms around the world. Always, always, this tension between the group and the individual, the impersonal and the personal, the predictable and unpredictable.

I wanted to write this because there wasn't space in the short piece I wrote for G2 to ask or answer all the questions I have about this company. It was supposed to be clarifying; instead, my thoughts feel more tangled than ever. But that, I suppose, is what makes OG so fascinating. Their idealism is laced with cunning; they put audiences under a microscope while remaining elusive themselves. Perhaps if I had seen more of their work I'd have a better handle on who they are, what they do, how they do it. But somehow, I doubt it.


  1. This was a really great read and one I found particularly enlightening after last night's trip to see Audience. I agree with you that OG are great manipulators; however, my conclusion is that there is a big streak of maliciousness in this manipulation that they refuse to take ownership of, and I find myself not respecting them as individuals for making work that does, in my belief, damage the audience they so cheerfully walk away from when their "job" is over.

  2. Ooh, I've just read your review and really, really wish I'd been there to see you in action. I've no idea how I would have felt about Audience if I'd first seen it on a quiet night when no one said anything, or if the girl had been visibly upset, or if or if or if... Other context for my Edinburgh viewing is that the night before I saw One Man Show, and most of what that said about the experience of watching people on stage/being an audience, Audience cracked through in the first 10 or 15 minutes. Re manipulations, there was one more absorbing Devriendt quote that I snippeted from in the G2 piece and meant to go back to above but forgot: "People here sometimes say: 'You have all the power over me.' I'm like: no, you have power too. The strangest thing is, I don't want to make people feel stupid, but sometimes when people are angry and they're like, 'You're manipulating me', of course I am. I'm pretty open in my information because we are being manipulated all the time, by quotes and all that." Which again suggests to me he knows exactly what he's doing, yet doesn't have a clue, doesn't realise not everyone finds him as "open in [his] information" as he believes himself to be. As you say, any company that gets people talking and debating to such an extent has to be doing something right, no matter how wrong it all feels.

  3. Lovely, searching piece, Maddie. And name me another company that would make you go home and write an extra 3000 words above what you'd been commissioned.

    It reminds me of the friend who saw Internal with four other men, all of them strangers. None of them liked the show, but all of them went and had a drink together to discuss it.

    Have you ever heard of a show that could have that effect on five people who didn't even know each other?

    Having seen nearly everything they've done since I stumbled across Smile Off Your Face by chance on the Edinburgh Fringe, I find the effect they have on audiences (those who like the shows and those who don't) to be fascinating.