St George's West
Public Health Warning
Please read the whole of this review before booking tickets for Audience. If you do not, BTG cannot accept responsibility for the consequences.
Antonin Artaud was instrumental in popularising the Theatre of Cruelty. In that genre, people on stage pretended to be unpleasant to other people on stage.
Under the direction of their founder, Alexander Devriendt, Ontroerend Goed's 21st century version differs in that the Cruelty is perpetrated by people on stage on members of the audience.
Ontroerend Goed is a Belgian company that delights in performance pieces such as Smile Off Your Face and Internal that expose us to highly personalised experiences and this show possibly takes things further than ever before.
On one level, Audience could be perceived as calmly sadistic humiliation of innocents. On another, it is a fascinating take on the audience experience and the way that we behave in the era of Reality TV, where everyone is fair game.
It also adds something to the debate about phone hacking and privacy when electronics have made us all potential victims of the kind of thought crimes that even George Orwell didn't imagine.
The opening sections are frankly pretty boring. First, actress Maria Dafneros delivers a long, tedious statement about how the audience in a theatre is and is not expected to behave. This is followed by a long, very slow camera pan across the packed, 200-strong audience, the result shown on a big screen.
The excessive behaviour follows. Four beautiful Belgian actors, whose American/Australian accents cover their origins only reasonably well in some cases, begin to put words into the mouths of individuals picked out by the camera. This is all still pretty harmless fun.
At the start, visitors were asked to check their coats and bags. These became the subject first of a fashion show and then three bags were emptied and analysed, down to the literature (Italo Calvino!), potions and condoms, with enthusiasm and anthropological thoroughness.
The serious part of the hour began as Matthieu Sys from the stage began to comment on what he perceived to the inadequacies of audience members and their garb. This is still arguably fun and nobody seemed too put out.
The really shocking element commenced when a girl (the term is used deliberately) called Sarah, who cannot have been more than around 21, was chosen for the full force of this presenter's charm. With the harshness of a stand-up comedian, Sys proceeded to insult and humiliate her unmercifully to the point where tears were on the verge of flooding.
This could have continued for hours but the actors were waiting for a trigger. The resistance began when an older man started highly audible coughing, then the representative of an newspaper ironically owned by Rupert Murdoch but still extant suggested a mass walk-out.
Neither of these ended the bullying which only finished when a man stood up and said "stop".
There then followed an apparently extempore but clearly scripted debate between the actors about the morality of this kind of behaviour and, by extension, show.
Finally, as a little light relief, the performers whipped up the audience into some collective behaviour - waving arms, chanting and dancing - perhaps just to prove their powers of manipulation.
Audience explores similar ground to Tim Crouch's The Author but in a very different way. There is a real risk that at some point, victims (and there is no other word) will take the insults too much to heart. Twenty minutes after her ordeal, as the audience left the theatre, Sarah was still being talked down.
The consequence of selection might be sleepless nights or tranquillisers for the more sensitive. There is also a risk that therapy or even worse might needed by the most vulnerable.
Having said all of that, Audience makes for compelling, if deeply uncomfortable, viewing and asks some very serious questions about contemporary society and the ways in which the public are being turned into performers and sources of entertainment.
This will be the most talked about show in Edinburgh this year. See it or not, you must choose.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher