The General Election is taking place in less than three weeks and in London you can barely move for politically-themed theatre seasons and performances – with this many candidates it’s going to take a lot to stand out from the crowd. Enter Ontroerend Goed, the Belgian immersive theatre company infamous for their confronting performances and morally questionable methodology of audience interaction, with Fight Night, an interrogation of our democratic processes.
At face value the show seems quite tame by the Ontroerend Goed’s standards: there is no nudity, no visceral verbal assault, no sexually frenzied teenage finale, and the audience are not even separated from one another – instead we sit together in a typical auditorium, each clasping the digital voting pad the ushers have handed out. Before us stands a white diamond, reminiscent of a boxing ring, and our five candidates arrive in their hooded coats ready to contend; thankfully the metaphor is not beaten over our heads too heavily.
Angelo Tijssens takes the stage as our MC, but instead of the bellowing showmanship of a ringside announcer, he speaks with an unsettling softness. He is playful, flirtatious even, as he delivers instructions on when and how we use our voting pads. He sets a tone that stays with us all evening: we are meant to be charmed by Tijssens and the candidates, but there is something troubling about them all. Every line they deliver feels like just that – a line, too polished, too contrived. We see the performance unfolding according to our votes and we believe they cannot have rehearsed every moment, yet it feels like they know something we don’t, and they are more prepared than we anticipated.
One by one, round by round, the candidates make their claims for our affection. Gilles De Schryver’s boyish charm is not enough to convince us to keep him, and he is the first to go. Maria Dafneros generally holds the lead position, being beautiful and articulate, but as we learn more about her views she becomes simultaneously more relatable and dislikeable. We use our votes to answer questions about our individual values, then make assumptions about how they correspond to the candidates.
As things develop it becomes clear this system is vague and its reasoning is flimsy; the rules are bent and the similarities with the UK’s own voting system are waved in front of you with glaring simplicity. To some this revelation may not be groundbreaking, but as we sit there a needling discomfort works away at the audience. How can we respond to a broken system? How can we provoke change? Will good come of it? A number of the audience stage a mini-revolution – the only time the performers seem genuinely flustered, as their power has been threatened. There is a glimmer of hope.
Director Alexander Devriendt has nurtured Ontroerend Goed’s reputation as a company that shocks, that encourages audience discomfort and isolates them from their known environments – Fight Night is no exception, the approach is simply more muted and more delicate. There is a creeping agitation that grows throughout and ultimately the performance denies catharsis. We are not able to leave feeling cleansed or settled, instead we must find that contentment elsewhere – potentially this is a call to action come 7 May?
Fight Night is playing the Unicorn Theatre until 3 May. For more information and tickets, see the Unicorn Theatre website.