Teenage Riot / Imagine-Toi / An Evening With Elsie Parsons / Magicians! Behind The Magic
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2010
* / **** / *** / ***

In the frenzy and intensity of the Edinburgh Fringe you can encounter a whole range of theatrical moods and genres, and even a variety of ideas about what constitutes theatre and how it works. The basic notion – that it is a live performance event in which performers and audience occupy the same space and time – is already under question in headphone pieces such as en route, which I reviewed earlier this month. In other instances, that co-presence is reduced to its purest, a one-on-one encounter such as that in Internal, last year’s speed-dating-cum-group-therapy piece from Belgian company Ontroerend Goed.

That company’s preoccupation with audience/performer relationships continues this year with Teenage Riot, a sequel to 2008’s exuberant Once And For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Really Are So Shut Up And Listen. That was a piece performed by a group of teenagers from Ghent (though shaped by the company’s adult prime movers), several of whom return for this sulkier follow-up. These are truculent teens who don’t wanna do anything except what they wanna do, which seems on the strength of this largely to be to protest that they don’t wanna etc. So opposed are they to the world of adulthood that they shut themselves in a cabin on the main Traverse stage. Sometimes one or more emerge, but most of what we see is video projected on to the front wall of the cabin. That’s right, the “fourth wall” here is real and opaque. Which means we have to take it on trust that what we see on video is actually happening in there... and since the supposedly live footage is intercut with clearly pre-recorded external sequences, we know we’re not getting anything unmediated. This is not playing games with the audience’s notions of immediacy and (a current theatrical buzzword) liveness, at least not games that we can win. It is mocking us. I have become increasingly persuaded that Ontroerend Goed either do not realise the gross disparity between the stake their performers have in a given production and that which the audience is compelled to invest, or that they do not care about what amounts to exploitation of the basic theatrical transaction. And I find this approach smelling more and more rank.

The contrast could not be more telling than with French mime/clown Julien Cottereau’s piece Imagine-Toi (Assembly @ Princes Street Gardens). Cottereau’s work is more or less classical mime: playing wordlessly with imaginary dogs, balls etc. However, he opens it up to us both collectively and as individuals, inviting audience members on to the stage to skip on his invisible rope, play keepie-uppie and engage in a swashbuckling romantic drama with him. His greatest gift is for keeping such routines entirely free of the embarrassment that is usually mandatory with such audience participation. His helpers, and the rest of us, are sharing in play with him: the deal he implicitly makes with the audience is that we are equals. It is quite beautiful.

A certain amount of audience complicity is also required in Richard Cameron’s latest play, An Evening With Elsie Parsons (Dome @ George Street), in which we effectively play the visitors to a séance which develops along unexpected lines. Its conclusion is characteristically Cameronian, downbeat yet hopeful and involving muddling through together, but the route to it is a novel one. It is a pity that its audiences are not bigger: at the performance I saw, there were scarcely more of us than would fit around a ouija board.

Similarly, in Magicians! Behind The Magic, we spectators play the part of an awestruck conjuring audience, even though Fabuloso and Dupont (alias the duo Swift and Crawley) are exponents of that performance aesthetic dubbed by the late Ken Campbell “doing it crappily”.  And yet they strike the most impressive audience deal I have seen all month by enticing us to watch in rapt silence, as if witnessing a Copperfield illusion, while a toaster browns a couple of slices of bread. These productions, so to speak, hold conversations with the audience so that they and we agree what we all bring to the theatrical event; unlike the Belgian theatremakers, who are too similar to their teenage performers in that they are concerned only with saying what they want to say about theatre and not with listening to any responses.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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