European company still packing a punch in new work with political edge
Innovative Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed built its reputation with work that packs a punch.
So with new show Fight Night, Plymouth audiences might be expecting something bordering on brutality.
Despite the title, the scrapping here is political. A favourite Ontroerend Goed tool, audience participation, is employed as five candidates compete for their votes.
In fact Fight Night is the second lower-key piece in succession after last year's gentle study of teen angst in All That Is Wrong.
Both are a step back from the raw anger of Under The Influence (2009) and Teenage Riot (2010). Nor does Fight Night arrive trailing the allegations of viewer exploitation that came with Audience (2011).
Is the company now deliberately pulling its punches? Yes and no. The gist of director Alexander Devriendt's explanation is that the big right hook is gone and the persistent jab is the new weapon.
"I felt that I lost some of my audiences," he says. "Those who were ready for it were, like, 'Yes! I like this!' but others less sure.
"We have not changed what we talk about, only the way we talk about it.
"We don't want to preach only to our own church. We want to reach as many people as possible. So the point of this show emerges slowly. It is not thrown in your face."
And that point is about politics and how we choose our leaders.
Alexander says we vote for a particular party based on policies, but we elect individual politicians that we trust and who are smart. What would happen, then, if there were no party colours to help us? The result in Fight Night is that the contest resembles a game show. That led to grumbles from some reviewers when the piece aired in Edinburgh. Ontroerend Goed has previously walked away with Fringe First awards for its original work, but Fight Night was less warmly received by critics.
There were mutterings that this was more TV game show than theatre.
Not that Alexander minds such discussion. "The definition of art is to challenge boundaries," he says.
"Theatre as a medium has almost endless boundaries and the most important difference compared with say books or movies is the presence of the audience and that direct engagement. I like it that they call it a game show."
Alexander is confident that the audience at the Drum, the Theatre Royal's second space, will be supportive.
Ontroerend Goed – the name translates as "Feel Estate" – has built up a strong relationship with the theatre as now six-times collaborators with the Drum and there is a strong affinity with Plymouth theatregoers and the city itself.
Alexander says the company feels great pride to be putting on the first show marking the reopening of the Theatre Royal following a five-month closure for a £7-million regeneration.
"It feels a huge honour," he says, "and it feels so good to be back in Plymouth. I have fallen in love with Plymouth as much as the Theatre Royal. I love the city, the seaside and the cream tea scones."
Fight Night is at the Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth, from Thursday next week until Saturday, October 12.