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Lyn Gardner: Theatres battering down the fourth wall should take more care of their audiences

£¥€$ (Lies) at Summerhall, Edinburgh
£¥€$ (Lies) at Summerhall, Edinburgh
Lyn Gardner
Lyn Gardner is a theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage
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During this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve had the odd moment of sneaking nostalgia for the days when theatre meant sitting in the dark, absolutely confident that no one would disturb you for the duration of the performance.

Of course there are plenty of shows on the fringe that conform to the age-old conventions of theatre in which the performers stand in the light and the audience stays firmly in the shadows.

But there are also many that aren’t just dismantling the fourth wall, but taking a battering ram to it and rewriting how theatre is made.

Fanshen Theatre’s lightly entertaining Lists for the End of the World is not crowdfunded, but crowdsourced; the audience at every performance adds to the growing lists of topics – our subject was favourite childhood toys – that then become part of the performance.

The audience is essentially writing the show, but before we start demanding a writer’s fee, it’s worth remembering that the skill of this piece is in the way the audience contributions are then crafted.

Plenty more shows put the audience on the spot and sometimes in the spotlight far more starkly. In the brilliant Palmyra, a member of the audience is entrusted with a hammer and has to decide whether to hand it over to one of the performers who is threatening the other.

The whole thing becomes a metaphor for the West’s failure to intervene in Syria. Or at least it did at the performance I saw, when the hammer stayed in the audience. But maybe sometimes it is handed over and in that very act the audience changes what follows. Palmyra makes the audience think about its responsibilities and how its behaviour will affect others.

Elsewhere, one of the fascinating and uncomfortable things about £¥€$ (Lies)  – the latest from those theatrical pranksters Ontroerend Goed – and Foreign Radical is that the audience, and the way it behaves, is part of the spectacle.

In Lies, the audience members become traders working the financial markets with opportunities to take more and more risk and potentially make more and more money.

It’s an interesting experience and one that sharply points to the fact that few lessons have been learned from the 2008 crash and that the lack of regulation means another is likely.

The most fascinating part of the show is watching how some members of the audience become genuinely fired up by greed and set out to make as much money for themselves without regard for the consequences.

It is of course only a game. While there are people like me who are interested in whether it’s possible to break the theatrical game – I reckon Lies is unbreakable – most people go along with the premise and do what they are told because they don’t want to be party poopers or upset the artists. The problem is that sometimes, in these circumstances, they unwittingly expose themselves without realising it.

At the performance of Foreign Radical I attended, one woman took on the task of rifling through a potential terrorist suspect’s bag with such relish that it made the rest of us uncomfortable.

Maybe she was just playing the game, and perhaps playing it better than we were, but she had unwittingly become the spectacle, something exacerbated when she was singled out at the end of the show and asked about her background in a highly intrusive way.

When we go to a traditional piece of theatre in a traditional space, we mostly know the rules and conventions. We know that we do not leap on the stage and remove the gun from Hedda Gabler’s hand or give advice to Coriolanus.

Even in shows that do feature audience participation, there is an opportunity for most us to avoid eye contact with the performers and sit firmly on our hands so we are not selected.

But that’s not possible in a show such as From the Ground Up, an interactive performance made with the Almeida Young Company during which the audience members are asked questions about themselves in a kind of truth game. Yet only the cast have any inkling of what the rules of this game might be.

These shows can be absolutely thrilling and enormous fun, too, but they can also leave people feeling that they have been pushed into giving away more information about themselves than they really intended to a group of strangers.

At the start of the fringe I suggested that, to survive intact, those taking part should take care of themselves and each other.  But I also think that in the quest for new kinds of theatre experiences, we should think long and hard about whether we are taking care of the audience.

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