Audience, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, Untitled Love Story

THEATRE
Audience
St. George’s West (Venue 157)
4 stars ****
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
St. George’s West (Venue 157)
4 stars ****
David Leddy’s Untitled Love Story
St. George’s West (Venue 157)
3 stars ***

THERE’S NEVER any shortage of Fringe shows that set out to explore the relationship between actor and audience; most of them are boringly self-referential, or just plain self-obsessed. When Belgian Fringe stars Ontroerend Goed turn their attention to the subject, though, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice; and their new show Audience emerges as one of the slow-burning talking-points of the Fringe, a truly disturbing exploration of what happens to us when we become part of a crowd, and suspend – however briefly – our right to act and think for ourselves.

So the one-hour show begins in familiar enough style, with a disturbing eagerness to take our coats and bags as we enter, then an ironic lecture about how we, the audience, should conduct ourselves. It becomes a little irritating when the four performers bring some of the bags on stage, and ruthlessly invade their privacy, on camera; the whole event, including close-ups of the audience, is on live video throughout, with a large white screen behind the stage. There’s an interlude in which we learn to clap, first quietly, and then rising in crescendo to a huge standing ovation; then things turn nasty, with an actor picking on an audience member to the point where we begin to drop our “audience” role, to revolt and to protest.

And this is is where Audience becomes a truly gripping show, as the supremely skilful Ontroerend Goed team lead us on into an exploration of authoritarianism itself, and of how it depends on its ability to manipulate crowd behavour. There’s a horrifying moment when we listen to a harangue in the language of a far-right politician who ends his speech with a Nazi salute, and then see film of ourselves a few minutes before, obediently rising to applaud on request.

This hard, sharp questioning of the implied power-relationships in conventional theatre – the quiescence of the audience, its acceptance of the rules – is in some ways frighteningly destructive; it seems bent on shattering one of the last shared experiences which it seemed harmless to enjoy. In Belgium and the Netherlands, though, the voice of the authoritarian right has become insistent enough, in recent years, to make these questions both valid and essential; and Ontroerend Goed earn the right to ask them, with a brilliantly-shaped show that’s impossible to ignore.

Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit – presented by Volcano Theatre of Canada with Wolfgang Hoffmann and Remarkable Arts – also asks questions about the relationship between the play and the audience; but it does it in unique style, and for a purpose that could hardly be more urgent or serious. Soleimanpour is a young Iranian playwright forbidden to leave his country, and operating under severe restrictions; an empty seat for him is reserved in the front row. So he sends us a play about power, exclusion and scapegoating, to be read cold by a different actor every day, without previous knowledge of the text; I was lucky enough to see it read by the superb Libby King, of the New York group TEAM.

In the end, the text of White Rabbit Red Rabbit never quite rises to the challenge Soleimanpour sets himself; his extended animal metaphors can eventually become baffling, his long riff on the possible suicide of the performer – a victim of the venue, the producers, the playwright himself – even more so. There’s an originality about the form of this play, though, and an urgency about its tone and style, that commands attention; and also requires a high level of participation from the audience, who are insistently asked to take at least some responsibility for the eventual outcome, however sad or enigmatic it may be.

After those two shows, David Leddy’s new piece Untitled Love Story seems like a relatively conventional piece of theatre, requiring high levels of respect and acceptance from the audience, as it uses a series of rich visual effects and an astonishing soundscape – both by Graham Sutherland – to piece together the story of four people who find themselves alone in Venice, at different points in the city’s recent history. In 1967, there’s an aged Peggy Guggenheim, remembering an affair with Samuel Beckett, and mourning the death of her daughter; there’s also a young priest, unfrocked for experimenting with the idea of meditation. In the late 1970’s, there’s a gay man who has left his lover behind in Paris, dying of some strange, as yet unknown disease. And today, there’s a British girl ditched by her lover, pregnant and alone.

By David Leddy’s standards, Untitled Love Story is an uneven script, which seems slightly unsure of its purpose, or of how to integrate its sometimes brutal eroticism into the texture of the language; and its visual effects sometimes seem over-elaborate, draining the drama rather than feeding it. It gains strength, though, from four fine performances; with Morag Stark and Robin Laing excelling themselves as the millionairess and the priest, as if the 40-year distance that separates us from their story had lent more shape, and perhaps more compassion, to the view.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28, 29, 29 August
pp. 239, 311, 254

ENDS ENDS

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