Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Edinburgh: Internal

Of all the shows under the Traverse banner, it was Ontroerend Goed’s Internal that provided the most brain-fuel. It’s been discussed at length elsewhere but I shall throw my coins into the hat anyway (so if you plan on seeing it but haven't yet, you may not want to read on).

Internal is a show for five audience members at a time that takes place round the corner from the Traverse at the Mecure Point Hotel. At the start the audience members enter a small room and stand in front of curtain. This is then lifted to reveal five performers who appear to assess the people in front of them and then shuffle around accordingly, selecting a particular member of the audience as their partner and taking their chosen ‘date’ to a little booth where drinks are offered and a conversation is had. Often this conversation is flirtatious in nature, occasionally it is confrontational, and sometimes the performer doesn’t speak at all. I have heard talk of underwear being removed at other performances, and of breasts being flashed, but the closest I got to anything like that was when my date laid a selection of naked photos of himself on the table and asked me which one I preferred. Oddly I found myself considering this, assessing the images and giving an honest answer. I found this a little jarring I’ll admit though not shocking; I then asked if my date was tired since this was the 9.30 performance and the last of the day, and it was interesting that he was happy to acknowledge the level of repetition involved in what he was doing and that there was no attempt to pretend this was something other than what it was - we even ended up briefly discussing the BAC.

In the end the questions I was left with were not ones of intimacy or boundaries or of emotional connection but questions about the production itself. How much of what went on was scripted? How much freedom do the performers give themselves within the scenarios? Is the performers’ selection of partner at the start based on anything particular or is the selection process itself illusory? How does the exchange work with dates of the same sex? Is there a pre-arranged cut-off point, a line that they won’t cross? Have they ever had any reactions from audience members they haven’t felt comfortable with?

I’ve heard people talk of the experience as extremely liberating while others have described finding it intrusive; there has even been talk of feeling “used.” Perhaps I didn’t give myself to it as much as I might, but the production, to me, was simply a thing I experienced, neither revelatory nor exploitative. I was honest but guarded in my answers as I suspect, though I can’t know for sure, were most of the people in my group. The post-date discussion (when performers and audience gather in a circle and talk about each other) was amiable and lacking in fireworks. Much more satisfying and informative was the pavement-based huddle between myself and my four co-Internalees after we had left the building. Thirty minutes earlier we had been smiling pleasantly but mutely at one another in the hotel reception/audience holding area and yet after a less than half an hour we were stood together on the street, laughing and chatting about what had just taken place, so clearly a transition of sorts had occurred, a few fences had fallen.

What did bother me however was that nearly everyone I spoke to who had also experienced Internal were somehow connected with the theatre industry, so while there was a definite buzz surrounding the show, I do wonder how long its real reach was and how many regular Fringe-goers actually got to be part of it.

Thinking about it in the days since what I have been reminded of most is the forced intimacy of retail. That might sound like a flippant comparison but it’s not, I’ve worked in plenty of shops over the years and the level of connection generated between performer and audience member was on par with that of customer and sales assistant. Some people really are very needy and the expectation to over-share, the inappropriate flirtations and the numerous subtle emotional negotiations involved in selling someone a necklace or a pair of shoes aren’t that dissimilar from what Internal required from and gave to its audience.

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