One of the international highlights at this year’s Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival is Ontroerend Goed’s Personal Trilogy in Smock Alley. My review of part one: The Smile Off Your Face coming up just as soon as I eat some marzipan …
Every now and again we question: what is it about theatre that moves us? Is it the empathy of a humanitarian from which we sympathise with the protagonist and care for their safety? Or is it out of an identification with our own fortunes and burdens that we’re moved to tears? After The Smile Off Your Face one cannot help but unravel their theatrical experience without seeing the seams of their own personal lives.
You arrive at Smock Alley. You hand your ticket to the usher, who tells you to wait until you are called. Obviously this is a performance where the audience enter one at a time. You reach for an issue of Total Theatre Magazine, which conveniently has an article on Ontroerend Goed in it, and you notice above the page that others in this waiting room are passing around a black hardcover copybook. Eventually: it’s your turn. A nice gentleman brings you into a dark corridor and asks that you take a seat. All that is present is a wheelchair. You sit in it. He then explains that he has to tie your hands together and blindfold you.
Ontroerend Goed seem to be playing a trust game, one that has controversially backfired in the past. When Internal (part two of the ‘Personal Trilogy’) was performed in Edinburgh last year the group was accused of ethical breach and betraying their audiences (I don’t know about you, but such reports only made me want to see it more).
In my discussion on Pan Pan’s brilliant The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, I discussed postdramatic theatre and how a common characteristic of Irish practitioners in this field is the treatment of space as self-conscious. Shows such as Playing the Dane or The Company’s As You Are Now So Once Were We very much addressed the audience with flattery. There was still the distance between performer and spectator that you had with a dramatic play, even if it were reduced slightly. In Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy that distance is completely removed, and done so quite early on. Very soon into The Smile Off Your Face you find yourself blindly tracing with your hands the face of a silent performer, who then pulls you to your feet and dances quite closely with you. Another instance has you lying on a bed (still blindfolded) with a stranger and having a personal conversation with them about relationships. In the disabling of certain senses which may serve to only prejudice, The Smile Off Your Face quite literally transports you to a different plane of experience. The flickering scents, the titillating soundscapes, and the delicate physicality of the performers all combine to create a space of ‘intimacy’.
Some argue as to whether this is a form of ‘theatre’ or whether it resides in some other cavern of performance art. I’m up for persuasion but I don’t agree with dismissing it as not ‘theatre’ purely on the basis of having removed the chasm between performer and spectator. If anything, ‘theatre’ is foremost a concentration on ‘space’.
It is interesting to think of the show’s parallel with ‘prostitution’, and how individuals can enjoy these circumstances with strangers. The show doesn’t cross the line, but its convincing apparitions can give some suggestion of what intimacy with a stranger is like.
The Smile Off Your Face is not a show that a typical review can describe deservedly. There is no plot to be assessed or character motivations to be unlocked. All you have is intimacy, and how you respond to that depends on your own person. There is a magic in this genius that glimpses at the fabric of theatre: the syncretism of life and illusion. The performance is brought to a close by a simple gesture: a request for a smile. For the last six years, Ontroerend Goed have been travelling around the world asking everyone who comes to The Smile Off Your Face to smile for them. These closing moments are beautiful.
In an article on ‘One on One’ theatre (as some have come to call it) in the English Independent, Brian Logan quotes Alexander Devriendt, artistic director of Ontroerend Goed:
A good book never gives you love, but it gives you an insight into it. A work of art isn't a substitute, it's a mirror.
It is easy to be swept into the complaisant liaisons established in The Smile Off Your Face, but when the performance comes to an end the practicalities of reality flush back.
What did everybody else think?