Back to the Battersea Arts Centre last night for the second part of my experience with the Belgian performance theatre group Ontroerend Goed. BAC is a somewhat spartan place to visit at the moment. Stripped off its Red Death masque, which it had worn so well since last autumn, it has a semi-naked feel, dark soot-marks from the Red Death candles leaving shadows of the Punchdrunk production’s presence. One of the BAC people tells me that, brilliant success though The Masque of the Red Death was, they are glad to have their centre back. In addition to a range of smaller arts events, they have two more ‘playground’ productions in preparation for the space that was once Battersea town hall. I can’t wait.
After Tuesday’s wheelchair experience with Ontroerend Goed, I’m a bit nervous about turning up for another piece of such intimate theatre so soon afterwards. I wonder whether I revealed too much of myself last time, and contemplate going in disguise in case anyone from the company remembers me.
This time the performance is called ‘Internal’. There are five performers for each member of the ‘audience’. The five of you line up at the beginning on white crosses marked on the floor in front of a black curtain. When the curtain rises you are each faced by a member of the cast. Silently, a few of them exchange places; then you are led away by your allotted partner to one of the five cubicles lined up along a wall.
Each cubicle contains a small table, two chairs facing each other, a bottle of spirit and two glasses. My partner is a strikingly attractive woman with soft lips, dark hair and deep blue, soulful eyes. She is dressed in black. We sit down. She pours a drink. We touch glasses. We drink. She smiles. Her eyes never seem to move from mine.
I say something like, ‘This is strange.’ I am aware of a hubbub of conversation coming from the other cubicles but these are the only words that will pass between us in ours; she says nothing.
She takes my hand. She caresses it. She continues to smile and engage my gaze with those searching soulful eyes. She moves her hand to my face and touches it gently. Then she moves my hand to her face and encourages me to do the same.
She takes both of my hands on the table between us. She holds them. We hold each other’s hands. She moves her fingers between mine. I move mine between hers. She continues to smile and look at me. We caress each other’s hands on the table.
After how long, I don’t know, she turns her head and looks out of the cubicle. I follow her eyes where they lead me. Everyone else, the other four actors and their partners, is now sitting in a circle of chairs. They are looking at us. There are two empty chairs. We get up go and sit in them.
Each actor in turn now introduces their partner and says something about them. ‘This is Jackie, she’s 24 years older than me.’ ‘This is Melanie, she’s not as nervous as she was at the beginning.’ When it gets to my partner, she says of me, ‘I don’t need to know his name.’
Then each actor says a few words about what they think of their partner and whether they think there could be anything between them. ‘I think Jackie has experienced a lot of love pain.’ ‘I think Simon can look at me for a very long time.’ There is a round of negative comments too. ‘I don’t want to know about Simon’s interests and hobbies.’ Melanie is asked to go and stand outside the group, while her actor-partner tells her what he thinks of her. He comes back without her and announces to us all in a whisper, ‘She makes me nervous.’
My actor-partner says she thinks there could be something between us because ‘We can communicate without speaking.’ When she is asked to say something negative about me, she says that she thinks I am ‘a kind and gentle man’. Why am I flattered? I know this is just a performance.
Jackie’s partner asks if he can hold her. Jackie says no. He asks why. She says she doesn’t know him. Then my partner stands up and takes off her top. ‘Is this what you want to see?’ she asks, once more smiling and never shifting her gaze from mine. Perhaps now there is music, I’m not sure. At any rate, we are each invited to dance with our partners within the circle of chairs and then asked, personally, privately, for our addresses ‘so that I can send you a letter’.
And then we are guided back to our crosses on the floor, where we each stand facing our partners. The black curtain comes down and we are left to find our way back outside the performance space into the comfort of the Battersea Arts Centre entrance hall. I have a stiff lemonade and feel, in the word used to describe the performance by one of my fellow audience members, perplexed.
Sunday, 18 May 2008