Friday, December 10, 2010

Best of International Theatre 2010 #5: Ontroerend Goed, ‘Teenage Riot’

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Aug 17-28

I imagine it went something like this ...

One day a man woke up and said “I want to do a play. I want to do a play, and it will be about teenagers and performed entirely by teenagers. It could only be performed by teenagers. It will be unapologetic, chaotic, and unpredictable”.

Alexander Devriendt – artistic director of Belgian theatre entrepreneurs Ontroerend Goed – found thirteen Flemish teenagers and put together a show which became aptly known as: Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen. Devriendt (33) and his motley crew of adolescents brought the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2008 where it received critical acclaim and earned a tour to festivals all over the world. Critics especially applauded the show’s gleaming nostalgia, and its artful artifice of a universal ‘teenagedom’ realised as a realm now lost to today’s adults. Devriendt became something of champion of unheard teenagers, a Peter Pan to the Lost Boys if you will. Nestling tour dates around school holidays, Once and For All…was on the road for two years before its final performance in Ghent in April of this year. The Lost Boys had to grow up eventually, but seemingly Pan didn’t …

Devriendt wanted to do a stepbrother to Once and For All …; a play that focused on the aspects of adolescence that the previous play intentionally ignored. In an interview with freelance critic Mark Fisher (, Devriendt explains that: “Where Once and For All was the teenagedom I wish I had, I wanted to make something that was closer to the teenagedom I experienced. It was more personal. And I chose actors who had a rebelliousness in them”. He wanted to get at the heart of the teenage experience and exchange the sentiment of the previous show for a more gritty depiction concerned with the anger, instinct, and pressure of that time of living. He needed a way for his actors to carve out their selves as they have been subjected to by society. Devriendt realised that the youths needed a hideout (as youths do); someplace where they can remove themselves from the world so they are able to reflect upon it. The director decided to build his kids a clubhouse.

This isn’t typically a treehouse we’re dealing with (though perhaps the playful imagination and retreat associated with such could suit the teens of Once and For All …?). No, for Teenage Riot a bricked bunker is required. The youths hoard themselves inside, arriving one by one, each giving an accusatory look to the audience before entering and shutting the door behind them. Inside they are armed with a video camera, the real-time feed of which is projected on the front wall of this reinforced box. The kids seem to claim themselves as victims but don’t expect any angel-wings. Through the live camera we are privy to their actions, which range from cutting up worms, to slapping each other silly, to tutorials in how to please a girl with your finger. 

Devriendt’s art of subjectivity is achieved as the actors have complete control over how they are projected and what they wish the audience to witness through the means of the live camera feed. The camera-work is clever in the pace and focusing with which it reveals the innards of the den, and their world. Teenage Riot earns a rank on this list because of the nature of the spectatorship that it induces. A teenage boy leaves the den and walks out onstage. However, instead of addressing those of us in front of him he grafts his face to the lens and speaks:   

I don’t want to look at you while I’m talking. In my head all the words sound right, but when I utter them, they all come out in a strange and awkward way and then you think I’m stupid”.

There are two mechanisms at work here. First: through the use of live media, the actor manipulates all our capable powers of observance whilst the action is limited to the inside of the box. Secondly, the performers address the audience with an assumption that we have a possible relationship to them. Several teenage actors make direct remarks to us such as: “You’re not an example; you’re a warning” and “I pity you because you don’t have any grip on this world that surrounds you”. Having been accused of all manners of sins, an unusual degree of participation is bestowed onto us, and the connection between both parties becomes quite hostile. The authorship of Teenage Riot is completely in the hands of the troubled teens, and a dynamic of dominance is established between them and their adult observers. 

On one occasion the camera inside the box loses focus and we are left blind. A few moments later we realise that a male teenager has since climbed out from the box and is now standing on top of it, holding the camera as if it were a bazooka and pointing it at us. The rest of the inhabitants soldier out to meet us face-to-face, as the camera begins to focus and pick out individual faces in the audience. They grab a basket of tomatoes and pelt them at each projected face on the wall. 

I mentioned in my article on Ontroerend Goed’s Internal that the point of which it seemed to reach danger was when the one-on-one moved into to a group environment and the spewing of information deemed inappropriate in front of other audience members left some uncomfortable. The prospect of having your face singled out in front of a theatre of a few hundred is absolutely terrifying. It was this that had me spooked, not the tomatoes or the slanderous remarks, but this isolation consented or otherwise that was not made aware to the audience prior to the show. I was more so concerned that my mother would become a live target, as someone who has not attended a lot of this type of theatre and might not be comfortable with it.* 

* Neither my mother nor I ended up on the screen, though she told me afterwards that she would’ve found it fun. Indeed, most of the singled-out spectators didn’t seem nerved by the experience, and many of them played along by taunting the teenagers. Lesson of the year: don’t underestimate your mother’s theatre stamina. Also, maybe think carefully as to who you bring to Ontroerend Goed.

I also wrote in my piece on Internal how audiences seem to lose sight of the illusionary elements of the performance and to take personally how unflatteringly the show addressed them. Similarly, there’s a danger of becoming engrossed in this tension and writing off Teenage Riot as a tantrum which you want no part of. The teenagers are what make this piece, not the riot. Make no mistake: these youths are deeply troubled and disgustingly crude, and when they eventually march out of their den to confront us they’re deadly as knives. However, there are identifiable forms of sweet pathos in statements such as “My only friend is my diary”, “I want a record contract”, and “I haven’t got enough friends on Facebook”. After all, we can all probably relate to heightened realities and self-scrutinizing prejudices from our own teenage years. Like Once and For All …, a sentiment does find its way through the deviousness. 

What stands out is one moment in which the god-like camera marries with the actors to produce a rare kindness that without it Teenage Riot would simply be a tyrant. With the projection of the live feed thrown off focus and lost to us, one of the kids wanders outside the box and finds the aimless projection transmitting the face of one of the teenage girls inside onto his shirt. Both are smitten by it, and as are we the audience as it reminds us of the joyous simplicity that captivates the imaginations of children. There is something redeeming about Teenage Riot in this moment, that despite all their anger these kids can be touched by the delicate aberrations that in their coincidences seem divine. 

Critical reception to Teenage Riot was split. Some accused it of being sour and manipulative, others found it innovatively bold. Indeed the youths themselves contributed to the debate, posting responses to Lyn Gardner’s online review for the Guardian and accusing her of being lazy in her analysis. 

Grossly crude and intimidating as hell, Teenage Riot is raw and deviant theatre that is glorified by its ingenious stagecraft. Devriendt presents the teenage form in all its malleability; impressionable to the cultural forces that inform their rhetoric and social behaviour. There is a suggestion that these individuals are distortions of who they are supposed to be, and that the rest of us are to be held accountable. Nothing we can do can change that; perhaps that is the practicality of reality. It is with such acceptance that the play’s conclusion is sweet relief, as the kids uncover an escape from the box and climb out to the rest of their lives. As do we leave the riot to continue our lives, perhaps with a souvenir from our own pre-adult years, maybe not, but nevertheless a reminder that our teenage dystopias are due a postcard.

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