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Natasha Tripney: What can theatre tell us about the people who watch it?

Poznan's Malta Festival had lots of space for relaxing and reflection. Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski Poznan's Malta Festival had lots of space for relaxing and reflection. Photo: Maciej Zakrzewski
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It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to look someone right in the eyes. I’m sitting in an anonymous office block in Poznan, Poland, and for the past five minutes I’ve been staring at the man sitting opposite me and he’s been staring back. Neither of us has said a word.

The theme of this year’s Malta Festival is ‘the paradox of the spectator’. Curated by Dutch artist Lotte van den Berg, much of the work programmed concerns the act of watching and what it means to be part of an audience. What draws the eye? What makes us turn away? “The act of looking is no longer innocent,” says festival director Michal Merczynski, not in the age we now live in.

Earlier in the festival, Toco Nikaido’s Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker (recently seen in London as part of London International Festival of Theatre) looked at Japanese fan culture, while Ant Hampton’s new piece The Extra People explores the role of the onlooker in theatre and requires its participants to get actively involved. The festival concludes with a multimedia spectacle to mark the 60th anniversary of the Poznan June uprising.

For the duration of the Festival, Poznan’s Liberty Square has been transformed into a social hub. There is a stage area and various activities for children and families, but also lots of space for relaxing and reflection. There are deck chairs and even hammocks. Taking the time to think and talk is central to the festival. There are, fittingly, a lot of reflective surfaces. Some children are involved in what appears to be the knitting of a giant jumper. There are more children playing around (and in) the fountain. Lots of (very good) cake is being eaten.

Van den Berg’s own contribution to the programme includes a series of pieces entitled Building Conversation. One of these is called Conversation Without Words and it requires a group of people to sit in a room and be still and silent with one another for a time agreed by the participants. It’s an attempt to explore what can be communicated when people stop talking and start looking. There’s a mixture of us, from Poland, Turkey, Spain, the US and the UK. It’s awkward at first, there are giggles, it feels a little embarrassing. Occasionally people’s eyes meet and they look quickly away. But after a while we start to look at each other for a little longer, to really look, to hold each other’s gaze for minutes at a time, to study their faces and stare into their eyes. How often does this happen? It’s rare that society allows for this, to look at people with this level of concentration and intensity. It’s intimate, surprising and genuinely thought provoking: it triggers all manner of thoughts. No one checks their phones or their watches. One woman seems to find the experience moving, while another evidently struggles with it. But there is a lot of a smiling and a lot of care.

Afterwards (we do this for two hours) it takes a while to surface, to readjust. We walk together in the afternoon sun. Bowls of food are handed out and we eat and talk together. (The Edinburgh Festival Fringe could really do with more spaces where people feed you salad and ask how you are feeling.) On the surface Conversation Without Words feels like a fairly simple exercise, but in a week like the one just gone, and with so much uncertainty to come, this opportunity to think about communication, to really look and really listen, came to feel invaluable.

Poznan’s Malta Festival ran from June 17-28

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