Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ontroerend Goed, ‘A Game of You’: About You

Smock Alley Theatre
Oct 13-17 

My thoughts on A Game of You, and the Personal Trilogy as a whole, coming up just as soon as I burn you a CD …

There is a change of strategy towards the end of Ontroerend Goed’s Internal. The performers and spectators, in their pairs, leave their individual booths and all sit and engage in a circle. A one-on-one ‘intimacy’ that prevailed over most of the performance, as well as predecessor The Smile Off Your Face, now gives way to a social arena with several players. It is fitting then that A Game of You, the top-hat of the group’s ‘Personal Trilogy’, is a court in which spectators are subject to each other. They just don’t know it.

You find yourself navigating through a maze of curtained passages, confronting mirror after mirror, each of which is a discovery. Proceeding through the piece is a most cerebral experience, tripping over revelations as you go. The faces of Ontroerend Goed (who at this point in the trilogy seem like old friends) guide you through the labyrinth. 

Joeri sits me down and performs a re-enactment of my actions in the previous room. It hits: there is a secret surveillance to A Game of You. No mirror is simply that. It is in this Foucaultian fabric of the performance that ‘presence’ is the subject of evaluation. Joeri leads me to a live feed of a woman sitting in front of a mirror, unaware that she is observed. He tasks me with ‘inventing’ her persona based on my own interpretations of her appearance and gesture. I thought she looked like an “Emer”.

The piece is brought to a close by Joeri attempting a rendition of ‘me’ based on his observations of my character. I didn’t find his assessment to be a particularly accurate one. However, the real strength of A Game of You is not locked in the successes of these characterisations, but rather in what is revealed in the portrayal itself. Joeri’s performance seemed more influenced by the personal qualities established that were more positive if not sympathetic. While it is subject to infinite interpretation, potentially, his performance revealed something about his own character. In my opinion, an optimistic outlook informed Joeri’s interpretation, suggesting an inclination on his part to see the ‘better’ aspects of people. This was not the sole revelation of the night. When Joeri imitated the fictionalized ‘Emer’, he wittingly pointed out that I had given her the same interests that I possess. I had given her all my favourite books, my favourite foods. A divine comment on ‘affiliation ’lies at the heart of these ‘inventions’ and it is in such creations that we find our own negotiations with social reasoning. 

It is in this respect that A Game of You treads the same waters as literary maestros such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. A process is a work in which individual notions of ‘self’ bargain and contest with other personae in the identification of a cohesive consciousness. In each mirror of A Game of You is a reflection of how human psyches are penetrable by the impressions of other personalities. What crowns the performance is a wizardry of theatrical convention: a souvenir of a CD on which is an audio recording of another audience member ‘inventing’ a persona of you whilst observing you behind the mirror. These biographies may complement or criticise, but their weight is monumental. A Game of You sends its spectator home with a solid distortion of their very ‘being’.

In considering the ‘Personal Trilogy’ as a whole, there is a very interesting journey from start to finish, from inward to outward. The Smile Off Your Face quite literally sends the spectator inward, inducing a paralysis with mysterious perfumes and delicate physicality that renders intimacy imaginable. Internal, then, brings the audience out into their social faculties in a romanced reality of temporal relationships. While some have found experiencing such demands of social skill to be harsh, there is no doubt a lot more to be required of the audience in the centre piece of the trilogy. The transition from Smile is vast. This exploration of our personal entities comes to a head in A Game of You, where the spectator, in complete contrast to Smile, finds themselves visually saturated as they navigate through a mirror maze separating reflections from refractions. This finale piece crystallizes a conception of the ‘self’, admirably plummeting from the surface of our fashions to the psychological depths of our make-up. In a beautiful blurring of reality and illusion, with a result that is quite real, Ontroerend Goed’s work never fails to remind the viewer of the loves and criteria of their own private lives. The CD entitled ‘About You’ is a perfect end to this profound saga.

I attended a live discussion on the ‘What Are You Looking At?’ series of this year’s Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival (the line-up of which included the ‘Personal Trilogy’, as well as Tim Crouch’s The Author and Úna McKevitt’s 565+), at which Ontroerend Goed’s work was a topic of great discussion. Unsurprisingly, a lot of individuals in the room demonstrated a dislike of Internal, describing it as a very cold and unpleasant experience. In the face of this interactive theatre, audiences seem to be forgetting what is inherent in the ‘theatrical’: the ‘illusionary’. I question why there is such a tendency with this show to mistake the performers’ intents, all of which are illusionary, for some reality-based prejudice? Certainly, the twenty-first century theatre audience can decipher such theatrical code? Professional director Tom Creed rose the point of the ‘dramaturgy of the audience’, and suggested that perhaps it is the responsibility of the audience to be aware beforehand of the nature of the performance they’re attending. Such information about the shows was printed in the festival’s programme after all. Still, we have to ask: what is the responsibility of the audience? Should their degree of expectancy of a theatrical event remain constant? There is a growing presence of this immersive style of theatre practice. Artists will continue to tamper with theatrical code. The big question is: are the audience willing to keep up?

What did everybody else think?


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