Ontroerend Goed have created a body of interactive/immersive theatre work that plays with the audience, investigating the borderlands occupied by ‘performer’ and ‘audience member’, and interrogating the role of audience. Their latest piece is called, simply, Audience. It was a given that this ongoing investigation was going to be at the heart of the piece.
The first ten or fifteen minutes are good. As we enter the space our coats and bags are taken off us. We find our seats; we sit down – as you do. A young woman comes out to tell us to turn off our mobiles. And to check that we’ve been to the bathroom. She says that if you aren’t used to going to the theatre, here’s a few tips: It’ll get dark. You’re expected to sit still and be quiet. If an actor speaks to you, you’re not expected to answer. Don’t eat crisps. Don’t cough.
She takes her seat in the auditorium and a young man with a camera comes onstage and stands in front of the giant screen taking up the whole back wall. He pans the camera over us, and the images loom large on the screen. He homes in on hands or feet, then zooms out to give a whole-group shot. He returns to focus on faces, and we get actors’ voiceovers imagining what people are thinking; ‘I want to be taken out of my comfort zone’ is one. Well, yes, it’s obvious that you will be.
There’s some footage taken earlier of us entering the space. A fashion show of actors parading in our coats and jackets is mildly amusing; the tipping out of handbags less so – nothing is done around that other than to just state the obvious or go for the lowest common denominator jokes: ‘Headache pills and condoms – optimistic!’
But there’s worse, much worse, to come. The mood switches from comedy-show low-level fun to a scene that is so unpleasant, so unnecessary, that I can hardly bring myself to describe it. The actor onstage asks the camera to rove around the audience, and it settles on a young woman, who is then insulted, harangued and harassed in the most unpleasant way imaginable. The camera remains on her, in close-up, throughout. Her face is enormous onscreen, her lip is trembling, her eyes blinking away the tears. The actor says that he will only stop if she agrees to ‘spread her legs for the camera’. Some audience members call out for this to stop, and one brave man pushes the camera away.
Of course, seeing how the audience will respond is the point of the exercise, but there is no excuse on earth for what has just happened. If she was a plant, or an audience-member briefed beforehand (and I am pretty sure she wasn’t either of those), then this is still inexcusable. If she wasn’t, it is more than inexcusable, it is despicable.
I struggle to see how the company do not realise that this is not a theatrical examination of abusive behaviour, it is abusive behaviour. It is not an ironic parody of sexual harassment, it is sexual harassment. If Ontroerend Goed want to highlight these distresses in our society, then they need to learn to be part of the solution, not to perpetuate the problems.
I suspect that Ontroerend Goed’s actors wouldn’t risk trying this sort of thing on a man – they may well get punched in the face! Women – especially young women – are an easy target, as they internalise violence directed at them. The young woman abused so unpleasantly at this show was not an actor; she did not enter into the contract that actors agree to when playing a role. We have no way of knowing what histories of violence and abuse anyone might carry with them, so this is an extremely dangerous and horrible game being played.
I have seen, and I have supported, much of this company’s work to date and I have defended many of the company’s previous controversial artistic decisions. But not this time. Audience deserves no support or defence. An enormous disappointment.