The most shocking theatre London has ever seen, Belgian company Ontroerend Goed are known for their brilliant, immersive performances.
Viewers welcomed on to the stage for Belgian play Audience
Going to see a show by the fearless Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed is an experience that makes the heart race. The group got its first taste of international acclaim in 2007, when it won a Fringe First in Edinburgh for The Smile Off Your Face, for which audiences were blindfolded, tied up and asked to whisper secrets to performers on a bed. Other shows have involved being asked to invent stories about other audience members, or to rate nude Polaroids of actors.
Even with all this in mind, the company's newest show Audience has taken theatregoers aback. "Has theatre gone too far?" was the theme of a post-show discussion hosted by the Soho Theatre, where the play has just started its London run. Reviews of its Edinburgh premiere this summer echoed the same question. While many of the audience members walking out of the theatre on its opening night were exhilarated by what had happened, others were shocked and appalled.
So what happens? The cast are keen for the play's pivotal scenes to remain unknown to those who haven't yet seen the performance so they can have maximum impact on future viewers, but the idea is that an actor goads the audience into intervening to stop what's happening because of its moral repugnance. Viewers are secretly monitored, their behaviour manipulated, and rather than performing onstage, the actors sit in the auditorium with the rest of the audience, being filmed and projected on to a screen in front of them.
To some, it all sounds cynically provocative, but in reality Audience packs a hefty emotional punch. Ontroerend Goed could have concocted a play in which characters make speeches about crowd behaviour and how uncomfortable it feels to disagree with those in power; instead, it decided to take us on a journey during which we feel for ourselves how easy it is to unwittingly participate in the status quo. Causing offence may be a by-product, but it's not the intention.
The company's artistic director, Alexander Devriendt, directed the play and developed the idea along with the cast. He says the reason for making the play upsetting for some audience members is that it needed "a certain point where something happens, and whether you are sitting down and not doing anything or whether you were reacting, no matter what you did, you made a choice".
Finding a catalyst to provoke this reaction meant, Devriendt says, being "at the border of being shocking or challenging", but, he adds, "if art doesn't challenge you, why bother?" Even when we know we're watching fiction, he wants theatregoers to "keep being there as a person" with "your own objections, your own desires".
It's all part of the company's overarching mission to connect with viewers in the most direct way possible. "Everything has been said," Devriendt sighs. New methods of expressing old truths are the best way to jolt people into awareness, and film and TV aren't cutting it. It's this effort to find new ways of communicating, he says, that gets Ontroerend Goed pegged as an experimental group.
Actors in the piece say that taking their cues from the audience can be thrilling - although it makes rehearsals a bit hard. Matthieu Sys plays the character who becomes the target of the audience's revulsion, and he says playing the villain is "lots of fun. Of course, when it's live and it's in your face like that, it's a little bit more dangerous, but I have a really good script to back me up".
Maria Dafneros, another performer, says sitting with the audience means overhearing their conversations. "It's always unpredictable and a little bit scary," she says. "One time, I was sitting in front of a guy who was saying about Matthieu, 'I'm going to get up and I'm going to bash him. I'm going to bash him'."
Whatever their reaction, Dafneros says, the discussions afterwards are the important part, and audience reactions tend to be both mixed and passionate.
Annabel Provencal and Georgina Eastwick are theatre studies students at Roehampton University who debated the merits of the production after the opening night show.
"I didn't like it," Eastwick says. "I found it too obvious what was about to happen."
Her friend disagrees: "It was so awesome," Provencal says, "and such a reflection of what's happening in society ... all the material that they were rolling with was because of us, so maybe tomorrow there will be a completely different show. That's what I think made it so special."
Audience runs until January 7 at London's Soho Theatre