Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of International Theatre 2010 #2: Oneohone, ‘101’

C Soco, Edinburgh
Aug 15-30

The year is nearly over and it’s time to think back on the lessons we’ve learned. I’ll go first: I was naïve once and probably still am.

From reading this blog you may find that I often attribute a generosity or kindness to theatre, assuming it to be a considerate, well-meaning experience insofar as its audience is concerned.

There was one show this year that convinced me otherwise. There really is no other way of putting it:

101 got under my skin.    

Oneohone is a new performing arts company formed by Oxford graduates with a mission to pioneer new approaches to theatre. With 101 the company embarks on a revisitation of the basics of Aristotlean theatre by effectively removing the distance between performer and spectator and transplanting their audience right into the centre of the action.

The set-up is this: you arrive at the venue, and the show’s producer hands you a white sash. If you wish to partake in the performance then wear the sash. If you wish to simply observe then remove the sash. There are about a dozen in the audience, an amount equal to that of the performers. The producer then proceeds to slam the door abruptly, signaling the actors inside that their audience are about to arrive. You enter into a dimly-lit room.

What follows is one scenario out of a possible four, all of which use a Shakespearean text as the foundation for the events that occur. Having attended two out of the four scenarios, at first there appears to be an establishing of the space and the relationship between performer and spectator. A performer would then choose a spectator and instruct them to do a series of tasks through a deployment of suggestive techniques and improvisation, all the while progressing the narrative of the room.

First of all, there is a lot of power in these ‘one-on-one’ interactions. In some instances a power struggle occurs, as a teething resilience develops in the participant to defy the patronizing orders of the actor. In other scenarios the relationship is more akin to a friendship, so much in fact that when the room plummets into disorder that actor is the one that looks out for you. And like Ontroerend Goed’s ‘Personal Trilogy’, when you see that actor in a following performance there is a sense of familiarity that may or may not inform how you act to them .

My first 101 was a scenario entitled ‘My Choice’. Taking The Tempest’s Prospero and Caliban’s colonist-colonized relationship as the touchstone, the actors all adopt animalistic characteristics. One performer may be a growling wolf, the other an eccentric puppy. I got the hog.

The performers leave their animal personae and choose a participant, who they then blindfold and patronizingly instruct through a series of movements. It became apparent that the blonde-haired rugby tank that had chosen me was modeling me into a fellow swine. And sure enough I ended up crawling around on my knees, snorting out of my own free will. I guess I just wanted to go along with it. The actor then left me alone, blinded and snorting. It really is a turning point in the show. It is in this vacuum that you make a decision to either abandon the characteristics that have been granted to you (your mentor has abandoned you after all) or you can oink.

I decided to see my Piglet act through to the end. For a few moments I cautiously tried to navigate around the room, hearing only the barks and cries of beasts and domestic animals as I went. I bumped into somebody and said sorry. I knew immediately it was him – the actor had returned. The vicious grunting suggested he had reverted back to his hog state. There we were, three pigs short of a nursery rhyme.

It really was a fascinating moment. All I had to communicate were the gestures that he had taught me. In this way there was an intimacy to it. In looking back it was a gorgeous close to an otherwise twisted theatre experience. Next time I would see Babe though, it wouldn’t be under as pleasant circumstances.

The following day I went for my second 101. In the scenario ‘My Duty’ the room had taken on the mantle of Hamlet, and all the betrayal and bloodthirst that comes with it. We enter into a royal court and partake in a social gathering and the occasional dance. Indeed one spectator is chosen as Hamlet himself, and then dances intimately with a female actor playing Ophelia. The level of suggestive technique here is astounding, as Ophelia even manages to get the boy to kiss her. The king then makes himself known, and all in turn the actors kneel before him and take his hand. “Pray for thy sins”, he says. “They are loves I bear to you”, they reply. Us participants are then encouraged to take part. As each of us kneels and say those divine words, the room applauds congratulatory. Never underestimate the power of simply being accepted in a roomful of strangers.

The room then enters into disarray as an actor portraying Claudius kills the king. The actors, having again each chosen an individual from the audience, lead their charges to safety. At one occasion my hog man even asks me if I’m alright. The new king then presents himself, and the ‘Pray for thy sins’ ritual begins anew.

Oneohone create conditions here which are to be contested and efforts of control that are to be resisted. In ‘My Choice’, there were times I did choose to refuse the actor’s orders but ultimately gave in. That string of events ended quite beautifully, and I wonder if I would have been able to access its conclusion at all if I had refused to comply. With ‘My Duty’, the incentive to not kneel before an unlikeable bloke and profess your devotion to him is very much alive. The question is: do you have the guts to do it?

Nope. Not me anyway. In fact, I left 101 absolutely defeated on the second day. Never before had a theatrical event implored me to face all that was cowardly and unheroic about my own self.(*) As Hamlet and Laertes (both participants picked from the audience) are torn to the ground by the actors playing their fathers, all that is left in that room by day’s end is despair. I say theatre is a “generous” art form. This seems more like an act of cruelty.

*Saying that, there was one man at the performance I attended who refused to kneel before the king, which unlocked the rehearsed reactions of the actors that otherwise would not have been seen. Gutsy.

101 is not poor, unimaginative theatre. It is the opposite. But it is brutal.

In my review of Ontroerend Goed’s Internal I wrote about how the consequences of actions can change footing if the ‘one-on-one’ focus changes to a group scenario. The real power of ‘My Duty’ lies in the room itself and the code of conduct that it employs. The performance seeks to encourage its audience to breach that conduct, but it’s not easy. One could say that the experience was a forceful reminder that being human is being imperfect, and if so Oneohone wont shed light on how one could find the heroics and courage that they lack. All you've got are tough lessons and a new year.

Unto the Breach

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