Thursday, August 26, 2010

Edinburgh: Teenage Riot at the Traverse

A teenage boy is explaining, in some detail and with illustrative finger gestures, his technique for getting a girl aroused. He speaks with an air of confidence and experience, cocky and self-assured, imparting his expertise. Yet as soon as he is finished, his assembled adolescent audience surround him, niggling, pinching and pummelling him, like pack animals turning on one of their own.

This scene forms part of the latest work from the experimental Flemish theatre company Ontroerend Goed. Their previous productions include the astonishing Smile Off Your Face and Internal, two pieces that interrogated ideas of intimacy and confession, that invited the audience to open themselves up and then toyed with what they found there.

The company, together with Kopergietery Youth Theatre, were also responsible for Once and for All We’re Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, a show with an all-teenage cast that was boisterous and chaotic, raucous playground stuff, but beneath the anarchic veneer, there was a strict sense of order, of repetition and control.

Director Alexander Devriendt intended Teenage Riot, the second collaboration with Kopergietery, to focus on the elements of adolescence that Once and for All was less concerned with, the anger, focused and unfocused, the cruelty, the burden of expectation, the frustration implicit in being not quite an adult, yet no longer a child.

A cube sits centre stage and it is within this cube that most of the action takes place. For much of time, the teenage performers stay inside the box while images are projected on the front. Sometimes these are live, at other times pre-recorded. Only occasionally do the performers emerge, tumbling out of side doors or clambering up on to the roof. Meanwhile, the video verges on the endoscopic, probing folds of skin, zooming in on eyes and groins, examining zits, but it’s also a barrier between the audience and performers. Intentionally perhaps, it makes it difficult to connect and engage with what the cast are saying, widening the gap between 'us' – parents, adults, audience members – and 'them.'

The box acts as a stand-in for the fortress that is the adolescent bedroom – it allows them greater freedom to be aggressive, explicit, silly, intimate. It is also, more symbolically, a blank, white space onto which images are projected, entirely fitting in the broader context of the production.

Teenage Riot is a more shapeless piece than its predecessor, or at least gives the appearance of being so – more episodic, fluctuating. Some of what it presents is surprisingly predictable – the pounding music and graffiti expletives, the teenagers explaining their body image worries, their frustrations expressed physically as well as verbally.

And while it may have been devised with considerable input from its young cast and entirely of their ideas, it is also narrower in its vision than Once and for All. For one thing, the use of adolescents who are confident enough to join a theatre group and comfortable with the idea of performance has an inevitable self-limiting effect. This is one group of voices, a lone fluttering flag, and the introverted, unpopular and socially awkward are notable by their absence.

While the repeated use of video is understandable, providing as it does a safe space for expression, a protective fence, it becomes gratingly anti-theatrical after a while, threatening to obliterate the few genuine moments of connection, moments in which the cast appear with shoulders slumping under adult expectation and disappointment, their faces turned briefly towards the future. But this only happens towards the end of the production and can’t quite combat the show’s overriding air of bleakness.

The final (filmed) moments are both hopeful and defiant, but they come too late in a piece that is likely to divide its audience – and not just by age, but also in terms of those who are wowed by its anti-theatre, mid-finger aloft stance and those who find it a bit forced and ridiculous.

Slightly modified version of a review for The Stage

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