Belgians have been surprising and even enraging Edinburgh audiences for six years with a solo but unique brand of theatre. This time they’re back in numbers, writes Mark Fisher
When people ask me what was the strangest theatrical experience I’ve ever had, my mind often races back to the Fringe of 2007. I’d taken a punt on a show that sounded interesting from the blurb in the programme. It was called The Smile Off Your Face, by an unknown Belgian company called Ontroerend Goed.
At this stage in the festival, there had been no word of mouth about it, but I was intrigued by the idea of doing a one-to-one show in which I would be sat in a wheelchair, blindfolded and taken on a sensory journey.
Having descended into the basement of C Venues, I was pushed into an unknown space. Fingers passed through my hair, the heat of a flame tickled my chin, a chocolate was put into my mouth. Someone felt the contours of my face and encouraged me to do the same to her. I was helped out of the chair and pushed onto a bed where a woman whispered intimate questions: “What makes you happy? When did you last cry?” I’ll never forget the moment when the blindfold came off: an actor positioned himself in front of me and forced a tear to well up in his eye and roll down his cheek.
The whole thing lasted just 20 minutes, but it was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. I remember stumbling out onto Chambers Street, certain I’d witnessed something remarkable but, having been an audience of one, unable to check I hadn’t been dreaming.
It turned out I was right and, by the end of the company’s short run, international producers were fighting for tickets. One of them was Richard Jordan, who managed to see the last Edinburgh performance. “I turned up at the venue and they were in chaos because they’d oversold their tickets,” he says. “They were trying to pacify angry people. I sneaked into the venue where there were chairs, so I just sat down and I was into the show. The director of the Adelaide Fringe and I were the last two people to experience it in Edinburgh. We were both blindsided by it.”
Jordan struck up a relationship with the company and has helped bring them back to Edinburgh every year since.
Ontroerend Goed have continued to surprise and often enrage. The following year, they staged Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, in which a group of teenagers hit us in the face with life as they saw it. In 2009 came Internal, the most talked-about production I have ever seen, in which every spectator went on a blind date with an actor before having their assumptions upturned in a group therapy session. Since then, we’ve seen Teenage Riot, another angsty youth show; Audience, which turned the cameras on us to ask provocative questions about privacy and bullying; and All That Is Wrong, in which 18-year-old Koba Ryckewaert filled the stage with a representation in chalk of her inner thoughts.
At their best, Ontroerend Goed are a company that reinvent the dramaturgical wheel, yet affect you as deeply as if they had staged a conventional play. For that reason, their return this year with Fight Night, in which the audience votes on the actors it wants to keep on stage, has been eagerly awaited. Until now, however, what has been less certain is whether Ontroerend Goed is a one-off or just one of many imaginative companies in Belgium. This year, we can find out thanks to Big in Belgium, a five-show season put together by Jordan and company general manager David Bauwens. “For Ontroerend Goed, Edinburgh was our first encounter with the international theatre community,” says Bauwens. “I’m hoping other companies who I think are very talented can have a similar experience.”
Apart from Fight Night, which is at the Traverse, the season takes place at Summerhall. Tourniquet 2013, Bonanza, Freeze! and Parkin’Son represent a wave of Flemish theatremakers who have taken a different route from their French-speaking compatriots. Little of it is text-based, most of it acknowledges the presence of the audience and all of it pushes the boundaries of what theatre can be.
“Here in Belgium, a lot of attention goes to the French regions,” says Bauwens. “But I felt that our current generation has more to gain by exploring the Anglo-Saxon countries because we are more dividedly influenced by both the French and the English cultures than the generation that came before us. What a lot of theatre in Belgium has in common with Ontroerend Goed is it is made in an atmosphere of strong belief in live performance. None of the shows in the programme is quite like the others.”
Abattoir Fermé, from Mechelen, midway between Ghent and Antwerp, is staging Tourniquet 2013, a wordless theatrical nightmare. Not unusually for Flemish work, it has divided audiences. “They have a reputation for X-rated theatre,” says Bauwens. “The controversy with Ontroerend Goed usually comes from the way we relate to the audience, but the controversy with Abattoir Fermé usually has to do with the actual content. They use images from horror movies and work in a very dark area.”
Berlin, a company from Antwerp, has brought Bonanza, a piece that straddles theatre and film. It’s a five-screen documentary about a real town in Colorado that was once a booming centre for silver mining but now has a population of only seven. “It stems from the period when the company did not use actors at all,” says Bauwens. “The whole play is brought to you by five screens on stage. Everything is mixed and montaged on the screens. It has a bit of an installation feel, but it feels like theatre because you see characters interacting on stage.”
Nick Steur, a graduate of the Theatre Academy in Maastricht, works on the cusp of visual art and performance. For every performance of Freeze!, he collects stones from the local area then balances them on top of each other. The more precarious his tower, the more the audience draws in breath. “While you’re looking at it, the only thing you’re thinking about is ‘this is impossible, this has to be a trick’,” says Bauwens. “You cannot stack rocks of those different sizes on top of each other without them crashing into the glass on the floor, but he manages to do it. If you concentrate hard enough, you can do anything, no matter how weird it is.”
Finally, Parkin’Son is a performance by Stefano D’Anna, a 64-year-old therapist, and Giulio, his 33-year-old son and a choreographer. It’s an exploration of their relationship, which has a particular tension given that Stefano has Parkinson’s disease. “It’s a beautiful, emotional show,” says Bauwens.
As for Fight Night, it’s a show that aims to expose the workings of the democratic process, as each actor struggles to gain our vote. “They all want to win,” says Bauwens. “It’s a reflection on democracy and how it often fails, without it being literally political. It never explains why there is an election: there just is one and these five actors are your candidates and one of them has to win at the end of the night.”
• Bonanza, Summerhall, various times, until 25 August; Fight Night, Traverse, various times, until 25 August; Freeze!, Summerhall, 6:15pm, 12-25 August; Parkin’Son, Summerhall, 6:05pm, 12-25 August; Tourniquet 2013, Summerhall, 11:20pm, until 25 August.
Originally published in The Scotsman