In It To Win It

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

Just take a stroll down the Royal Mile and you quickly notice that competition is right at the heart of the Fringe. Flyerers trip over one another to slap their leaflet in your hand, performers all fight for attention and the ultimate prize is the five-star review. Like it or not, there are winners and there are losers.

For two shows at this year’s festival, that competitive element is dragged into the foreground. Made in China’s new show Gym Party, a dark and funny dissection of the desire to win, describes itself as a “three-way battle to the death” between its grimly competitive trio of rivals. In Fight Night, meanwhile, regular Fringe provocateurs Ontroerend Goed pit five performers against one another in a popularity contest where the audience have the final say.

“People have always been competitive and competition is not an inherently bad thing,” says Jess Latowicki, one half of Made in China. What she and fellow theatre-maker Tim Cowbury are troubled by, however, is the extent to which competition now drives our society. “It’s a mindset that has brought the world to its knees in the last few years,” Cowbury observes, pointing to the failure of free market competition in the financial crash and subsequent recession.

While Made in China’s starting point was politics, and in particular David Cameron’s “aspiration nation” speech, Gym Party draws on myriad types of competition. “When you say you’re making a show about competition, people are like: ‘what do you mean?’” Latowicki laughs. “It’s a really, really big topic.” Not aiming to focus on any one type of competition, the show instead critiques the underlying desire that drives it all, bringing in references to everything from competitive sport to television gameshows and talent contests.

Like Gym Party, the initial inspiration for Fight Night was political. Reflecting on the situation in his home country of Belgium, Ontroerend Goed’s artistic director Alexander Devriendt was struck by how far the cult of personality could sway elections and found himself wondering if it might be possible to explore these impulses in a theatrical setting. “I wanted to see what happened if I left behind all party colours and society issues,” Devriendt explains. “What if I take them all out, what do you vote for then?”

The resulting show fills the stage with five performers—or “candidates”, as Devriendt refers to them—who must persuade audiences to keep them in the game. Voting decisions are made based on “their presence, what they believe in, how they look, how they sound”, with Devriendt emphasising that the performers are playing versions of themselves rather than defined characters. Perhaps because of this, there is a genuine desire to compete. “The actors who perform in the show all want to win, because if they don’t win they’re out,” says Devriendt. “I like this real drive of the actors – they really want to perform and they want to win you over.”

The structure of different rounds and the very real element of competition bear certain resemblances with Made in China’s show. As it stands—Latowicki and Cowbury are still in the final stages of making the show when Fest speaks to them—Gym Party moves through three distinct phases of competition. The first offers a playful take on sports day, with performers competing in a series of silly physical tasks, while the second section moves into what Latowicki calls “subjective competition”, asking the audience to become the arbiters. In the third and final segment, the piece takes a dark turn.

Through this grim and admittedly “nasty” material, Gym Party asks just how far we will go in order to win. But Latowicki stresses that what they show the audience is no more shocking than the world around them. “These things happen,” she says. “People are horrible to each other for the sake of getting ahead, and all we’re doing is taking things from real life and framing them in a way that allows the audience to go ‘oh shit.’”

Similarly, Ontroerend Goed hope that there will be a darker political resonance to the competition in Fight Night, unveiling some of the motivations that trigger us as voters. However, it is important for Devriendt that this interpretation is never explicitly defined. “You can see it as a game, but you can see it as a metaphor for what you want,” he says. “I try to leave that open.”

Latowicki and Cowbury agree that they would rather leave the conclusions up to their audiences. “Some people want shows to give answers, but we’d much rather ask questions,” says Cowbury. “Our job is to provoke people to think about things they might not otherwise think about, or challenge their preconceptions and unsettle them.” He pauses. “As well as entertaining them, of course.”

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Teenage Riot, Unicorn Theatre

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In many ways, adolescence is an age of slammed doors. Arguments with family are followed by the shudder of wood against frame; the entrance to adulthood, close enough to touch, remains stubbornly sealed, the world behind it distantly alien. In Ontroerend Goed’s Teenage Riot, the second in a trio of pieces the company has made with and about teenagers, this barrier is made material and dumped centre stage. The show’s eight teenage performers, who walk on one by one in dim lighting, lock themselves away in a large wooden box, a hermetically sealed retreat from the encroaching adult world. We want no part in this, the gesture seems to say.

For the remainder of the piece, this box simultaneously acts as a frame, a cage and an escape. It is a frame in the sense that it conspicuously outlines what we do and do not see, as well as framing how we see it. Once the doors are closed, our only glimpses inside this adult-free space are delivered via film projections onto the front of the box, using a mediated form that is in the hands of the teenagers, who are quite literally projecting themselves. We see snatches of them drinking, undressing, dancing, plastering their faces with make-up, the distinction between what is being filmed live and what has been pre-recorded always cleverly blurred. The young performers deliver revealing monologues to camera, offer us slimming tips, mock their adult counterparts with brutally accurate observations.

The statement of shutting themselves off from the world, meanwhile, filters our reading of what these teenagers say, immediately establishing a dynamic of resistance and rebellion that is of course reinforced by the title (which is itself arguably more charged now, particularly for British audiences, than it was when the show was first made). While in some senses this retreat liberates them, they are at the same time trapped in a cage of their own making; they can exercise their individual freedom while within these restraints, but their spitting rage at the world they see through the bars is reduced to impotent protest. This is what constantly lies underneath the pulsing music and gleefully anarchic hedonism. Raw anger spills through the cracks.

Yet, in a sense, the anger isn’t raw at all. The show was first seen in Edinburgh almost three years ago; the then fourteen and fifteen year olds are now seventeen and eighteen, on the verge of adulthood themselves. This is rage repeated, frustration on a loop. But perhaps the time that has elapsed has only intensified the furious impetus at the show’s core. The individuals who rail so passionately against adult defeatism, who chuck tomatoes at images of the audience and deliver us with stark, unflinching accusations, are moving swiftly, inexorably closer to becoming that which they hate and deride. Mirroring the show’s final, poignant action, in which the performers choose either to return to their box or sit among the audience they have been attacking, soon it really will be time for them to make their choice.

For me, despite the challenges offered elsewhere, it is this final, lose-lose decision – to quietly submit to adult acceptance of the world as it is, or helplessly rage against it from within a contained environment – that lands the most bitterly bruising punch. This, I suspect, is largely down to my own position in relation to the piece. I wonder if, as an audience member, my specific age creates something of the uncanny; familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. Unlike the majority of Ontroerend Goed’s intended audience (despite its current inclusion in the Unicorn’s programme, it was originally made for adults) my teenage years aren’t all that distant. Indeed, it seems my skin still hasn’t quite received the memo that I’m now in my twenties. It’s therefore an age both near and distant, closer at hand yet less accessible than childhood. I can recognise a lot of the anger and frustration that Teenage Riot lays out on stage, but in a way that feels sadly distanced, or else pragmatically suppressed. Their accusations make me feel both defensively prickled – I’m not that much older than them, I’ve inherited the same shit, I’m equally fighting with how to deal with it – and guiltily uncomfortable. I ask myself whether I can still say I’m as angry as a seventeen year old, and I’m not sure I can.

As unsettling as Teenage Riot is, however, it also makes me bridle in a way that’s unrelated to my own piercingly pin-pointed failings and hypocrisies. For all that it repeatedly reinforces the message that this is its teenage performers’ own worldview, spoken in their own voices, I can’t help but ask “really?” In the same way that verbatim theatre’s enshrining of its own veracity instantly brings out the sceptic in me (as I’ve discussed before), anything that proclaims its authenticity inevitably ushers in doubt with the same breath. Apparently, according to numerous interviews with director Alexander Devriendt, the performers really were given control over how they present themselves in the show, but this doesn’t entirely resolve my reservations. The hand of Devriendt in the making of the show must have had some influence, however small, while the very nature of the presentation unavoidably alters its content. These are not just teenagers on stage, they stand in for a wider portrait of teenage experience – transformed, almost unwittingly, into representatives for a whole generation. It all smacks a little, dare I say it, of exploitation.

But then this too contributes to the mechanics of the piece and the discomfort it relentlessly engenders in its audience. There’s always something just a little unsettling about the sort of doubling created by the at once authentic and inauthentic; these are actually teenagers, but they are also in a sense playing teenagers. Further, the performers’ age and the way in which – whether intended or not – their highly subjective statements are recruited into a representation of adolescence, implicitly asks troubling questions. Do they really know the implications of their actions on stage? As (mostly) legal minors, who is responsible for their wellbeing in this situation? Is it OK that we as an audience are watching the events contained within this deliberately private space, positioned as voyeurs? We don’t need the camera to be turned on us to recognise the problematic nature of our gaze.

Without quite intending to, I realise I’ve ended up levelling a lot of criticisms at Teenage Riot. Much of this is simply an attempt to get to the bottom of my own troubled reaction to it, which in itself says something about its power as a piece of theatre. Unlike a lot of the shows I’ve seen this year which, however enjoyable in the moment, have left me fairly quickly, this continues to chip away at me. It’s a piece that manages to be thrilling, reflective, beautiful and disturbing all in the space of an hour, leaving behind a trace that is not easily shrugged off – even after more than 1,000 words of analysis. What is perhaps most haunting is its bleak presentation of the world into which these almost-adults are about to step. In the end, as the performers stare out at the debris of a world that is not of their making but that they will have to navigate a route through, the question is simply: “what are we supposed to do with this?”

Photo: Mirjam Devriendt