It’s unusual during an interview to have questions thrown back at you, but this is what’s happening as we interview Alexander Devriendt. The artistic director of maverick Belgian theatre collective, Ontroerend Goed, is in Australia to stage Fight Night, a production of provocative, interactive theatre in which the audience controls the action on stage via an electronic handheld device.
Not only is Devriendt being – apologetically – coy about answering some of our questions (surprise is key to the show’s success) but he begins asking his own, of us. And he’s expecting a response.
A collaboration between Adelaide’s The Border Project, Ontroerend Goed and Drum Theatre Plymouth, Fight Night introduces the audience to five characters whose identities are concealed under hooded fighter’s robes. The audience is drip fed slivers of information throughout the show and is regularly asked to vote for its preferred candidate. The results, displayed on an electronic screen above the stage, dictate the action – from which character will be voted out, never to return, to who will receive the audience’s blessing. You control who will remain standing.
Fight Night was conceived by Devriendt in collaboration with Adelaide theatre company The Border Project’s co-creator Cameron Goodall, the show’s co-composer (who is currently on stage performing the role of Zazu in The Lion King). The idea was inspired by Devriendt’s concern at the superficiality and fickle nature of his own voting patterns when it came to Belgian politics, stirring him to explore the notion of voting and power in a broader context. Whether it’s So You Think You Can Dance, Big Brother or Australia’s federal election, Devriendt hopes to turn the spotlight inwards on the voters themselves, forcing them to analyse their own behaviour and why they make the judgements they do.
“I have the socialist party I vote for but if I took my [candidate] away, what is it that triggers my vote?” asks the 37 year old. “I think, ‘I trust that guy’ but I don’t know why. I wanted to see how guilty I was [of being superficial], I wanted to show the possible areas that could make you vote for people. It could be a voice, appearance or a feeling.”
It is at this point that the questions start coming my direction. “If you were on stage in Sydney who would vote for you?” he asks. I mumble something vague and he challenges me, demanding an answer: “Who? Would it be the men? The women? Young people? Old people?”
Reviewers of Fight Night have commented on being surprised by their own reactions. Vicky Frost wrote in The Guardian Australia that it, “Pushes us to admit to being a little bit racist, sexist or violent,” while UK newspaper The Independent remarked on the audience leaving the theatre, “In a ferment of excitement”.
Such is the nature of Fight Night and Ontroerend Goed itself, an outfit renowned for challenging preconceptions and provoking audiences. The theatre company came together by accident, starting life as a group of literature students, including Devriendt, who got together to give experimental poetry performances and were subsequently funded to create more ‘theatre’. Works such as The Smile Off Your Face – which consisted of audience members being blindfolded and made wheelchair-bound – place audience members in uncomfortable situations where they are forced to confront their own prejudices. Fight Night is a little gentler than some of the more in-your-face shows.
This is the second time Ontroerend Goed has collaborated with Goodall, following A History of Everything, a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and Sydney Festival in 2012. Devriendt says he’d been chewing over the voting concept for a while when he discovered Goodall had already done something similar (Trouble on Planet Earth with The Border Project) so it seemed like a good match.
“There’s always a personal drive, and for me that was Belgian politics, but I liked the fact that this could extend to other systems. So it transcends my personal issues,” Devriendt says.
Fight Night has already played to audiences in Edinburgh, the UK, Holland, Belgium, Turkey and Hong Kong. “It transcends all borders,” he says. “In Hong Kong the response has been amazing – people have said it’s exactly what they need in order to talk about democracy. If my 13-year-old brother saw it he would think it was fun. But there are layers underneath. What makes you vote? What’s the manipulation? The fear of the majority? They’re the possible dangers of a democratic system.”
Fight Night plays at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 until April 13.