Fight Night
10:30pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014
The Border Project have been a bit hit-or-miss for me, though I freely admit to having a crap sample size to apply any judgement; whilst their version of Macbeth (performed with the Sydney Theatre Company) was a cracker, their solo effort Trouble on Planet Earth demonstrated that crowdsourcing entertainment doesn’t work. Or, rather, that the crowds who choose to see things at the same time I do suck. Or, maybe, that I’m misanthropic.
Ontroerend Goed, on the other hand, have been nothing but awesome. From my first encounter with the company, they’ve thrown forth consistently challenging and engaging work… and so, on balance, I approached this production full of anticipation.
Unfortunately, Fight Night owes more to Trouble on Planet Earth than any of Ontroerend Goed’s work, and that left me more than a little annoyed… cheated, even. But this time, my ill feelings weren’t completely aimed at my fellow audience members.
The premise is simple: five actors introduce themselves to us, answer questions posed by a moderator, and then – using small wireless voting devices that we were given – we vote on their responses. The loser departs. Simple. But the questions vary in quality: often we’re asked to make a choice based on trivial facts, such as the candidates’ appearance… and that (which just happened to be the first question) is when the negative voices in my head started crossing their arms and harrumphing in the corner.
See, this isn’t the sort of stuff I’m into. After the aforementioned Trouble on Planet Earth, I realised that my opinions are rarely in line with those of a crowd… leading to me inwardly shaking my head at the results of the vote. Perhaps more significantly in the case of this production, however, is the fact that I fucking loathe the type of voting gameshows that Fight Night attempts to parody: I’ve never voted anyone out of a house, or out of a talent show, or anything. That’s not what I want to do.
And yet, there I was… with a voting system that could detect errant voters.
The production goes out of its way to create faux conflict: it is set within a (semblance of a) boxing ring, a huge results screen hanging overhead, with candidates that openly criticise each other and the audience. The candidates (who were introduced divisively as nigger, faggot, cunt, retard, and nothing) pitch their responses to the audience, make alliances behind each other’s backs, and presumably perform in a way intended to mimic “democracy” as we know it; but there’s also conflict from within the audience, too, as two men stormed out of the performance in the first ten minutes, flipping the cast the bird as they did so. I was initially puzzled by this: why were they here, then? What were they expecting – a real fight?
A level of trust is placed in the displayed results by the audience; there were plenty of oohs and aahs when the test question – the gender mix of the audience – presented the fact that women were a slight majority (52%), but the sceptic in me is not sure the number was right… believable, yes, but maybe it’s supposed to be that way. As the voting continues, there’s a few twists and turns: the moderator is voted out in an act of contrived democracy. Then there was the proposition that the audience should give up their vote, justified by the idea that our vote didn’t actually matter; an option taken by many grinning audience members in the crowd, who happily handed in their voting devices and sat on the stage for the remainder of the show.
And that was the point where I felt obliged to give the production some credit: we – the audience – were coerced into thinking that our vote didn’t matter, that not voting was the only legitimate way to have a voice. But those people who opted not to vote? That was their choice – and, when we were permitted to vote on their expulsion from the show, of course I voted to kick them out. Their choices handed me that power; they were complicit in my decision.
The contrivance of the ending – where the perennial favourite wins, despite delivering the exact result that one of the other candidates pitched (and she railed against) – made Fight Night feel like a ruse: that we were duped, while being socially engineered into believing that we actually had agency in this process. It’s only later that I reflect on the two guys who left in the opening ten minutes, and entertain the idea that they were plants; I talked to people who attended other performances of Fight Night and heard that they, too, witnessed such a disturbance. Maybe this was part of the social engineering performed upon us… maybe the prickly manner of their departure was somehow supposed to unite us as an audience, to create a baseline from whence we could be splintered.
I knew early on that I was not going to get the most out of Fight Night, and even my appreciation of the manipulations applied to us couldn’t completely overcome my inherent dislike of this type of group interactive experience. I’m sure that some people had a great laugh; I’m sure that some people learnt something. But I just had to make do with trying to figure out how they were making us act like idiots.
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) March 15, 2014