Seeing as the secret's out, here's some thoughts, originally written in May 2010, about being immersed in Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed's piece 'Internal' as part of Mayfest in Bristol.
I’ve felt angry, exhilarated, depressed, delirious, panicked, betrayed, exploited, joyous and I haven’t been able to talk or think about much else for more than a week. If you were one of the people who went to Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed’s ‘Internal’ during Mayfest, you’ll probably know what I mean. If you didn’t, here’s what happened...
The ‘show’ (that’s not quite the word but it’ll have to do) only lasted 25 minutes and was for an audience of five. The gist of it was that, via an intense and nerve-wracking line-up, each of the actors paired off with a member of the audience and took their ‘partner’ to a candlelit booth. I was chosen by a very attractive woman called Maria. She poured me a shot of vodka and we talked. I confidently told her that I’ve been with the same partner for 25 years. We discussed the importance of friendship. I said something about being a writer and interested in what other people have to say. It seemed hilariously funny that my favourite town in the world was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. As a finale, she asked me to close my eyes and take her on an imaginary journey. We ‘went’ to a lake in Slovenia. It seemed innocent enough, even the bit where I conceded that we were touching and “maybe” we were kissing (but not in that way, pervs).
Shortly after, everyone emerged from their respective booths and all ten of us sat in a circle. Actors talked about their partners. The speed date became group therapy. Maria said some very flattering things about me and described our ‘journey’ to Slovenia, ramping up the kissing bit and adding in a sunset. Other encounters hadn’t been so successful, it seemed: one actor confessed to feeling that he’d not been able to “get through” to his partner while in another of the booths there’d been no conversation at all. Someone (an actor) noticed that Maria and I were sitting in identical poses. Another actor asked his partner if she’d “hold” him. She refused, on the entirely reasonable grounds that she’d only just met him and hardly knew him. At some point, the actress from the silent pair, stood up and bared her breasts. “Is this what you wanted to see?” she asked. “No,” said her partner, looking terrified.
After that, I felt faintly relieved. Compared with what happened to the others, my conversation with Maria seemed entirely normal and sane. Then the two of us became the focus of attention. I was asked (by another actor) if I thought that we’d “clicked”. I said “Yes”. Why wouldn’t I? Maria and I had got on. We’d had a chat, shared a laugh, made a toast to friendship. “Prove it!” said the other actor, quite aggressively. I looked blank. How on earth do you do that? Before I could think, Maria had opened her arms and she was kissing me. Warmly. On the lips. Suddenly, I was emotional jelly: euphoric as a 17-year-old who’s just copped off with the best-looking girl in school. Then Maria very matter-of-factly announced to everyone that I’d been with my partner for 25 years. Ouch. Somehow this metaphorical slap across the chops didn’t stop me giving her my address. She wanted, she said, to write me a letter.
And that was it. Or so it seemed. Outside, the audience chatted. We all agreed that it had been a slightly unusual experience and everybody was too polite to mention that I’d just shown myself to be a narcissistic slut by kissing a stranger who’d been nice to me. I went home, joked about having been “seduced by an attractive Belgian” and wrote up my review for Venue. Job done.
Only then the aftershocks started. Not for nothing is the show called ‘Internal’: it doesn’t happen in a theatre, it happens in your head. No matter how often you remind yourself that it really was “just a performance” and that, in my case, Maria was a ‘persona’ who was simply doling out flattery, you can’t escape the niggling thought that, maybe, just maybe, there was the glimmer of something real going on (not sexual, I hasten to add: the kiss, after all, was out of kilter with the rest of our conversation) - or the knowledge that, after 20-odd years of marriage, you’ve got the moral fibre of a pot plant. Hence the need to talk about it, especially with people who’ve been through the same encounter (not everyone got a kiss, it transpires; some got an abrupt and seriously cold cold shoulder), and to read everything about ‘Internal’ on the web, from glowing reviews to excoriating rants about Ontroerend Goed unethically ‘betraying’ their audience.
Even now I’m not sure what I think. On the one hand, I’m exhilarated by the emotions it’s sparked off (“I’ve never seen you so animated about anything - you’re usually so bloody cynical,” said one mate while I bored him to tears with yet another attempt at interpreting what had happened) and I’m impressed by the degree of risk the actors exposed themselves to (there are, let’s not forget, plenty of predatory stalkers out there, as they apparently discovered when they ran the show in Edinburgh). On the other, I’m depressed at discovering the extent of my own gullible cupidity and sporadically angry that some manipulative actors lured me so easily into a tender trap to make what seems to have been a some kind of point about identity theory or sexual politics (men can’t deal with it when they’re not in control maybe).
Either way, I’ve certainly never had this kind of fall-out from a piece of theatre before and while a lot of other art makes big claims about being challenging and life-changing (on the press release at least), none of it has come close to seriously fucking with my head. ‘Internal’ definitely did that, and while it’s obvious that it all hinged on some subtle and not-so-subtle psychological trickery (body language-echoing poses and the like), it’s still niggling away, a worm in my sub-conscious. When, exactly, did everything turn weird and manipulative? How did I let myself become an emotional adolescent? Why the fuck can’t I stop thinking about it?
The answer to that last one at least does now seem fairly obvious: it’s because this play still doesn’t have an ending. Act One was the conversation in the booth; Act Two was the group therapy session. Act Three so far has been all those slightly excruciating moments of frustration, exhilaration, sadness and anxiety, the long conversations with friends and my wife, and, erm, a letter from Maria.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting that. It arrived, handwritten, a couple of days ago but doesn’t really clear much up. Its friendly tone seems to be ‘real’ but it’s presumably still part of the ‘show’. For a while it simply puzzled me. Now, though, I realise that as well as being a kind of thank-you note, it’s also an inspired gesture. With a return address scribbled on the back of the envelope, it’s my invitation to write the final scene. Curiously, after reducing me to grade-A twatishness, Ontroerend Goed have handed me the baton. Perhaps that’s why when someone asked me if I regretted getting myself embroiled in this (let’s not forget it) performance, I said: “No, no, not at all. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Now all I’ve got to do is work out what to say to bring Act Three to a close.
This piece was originally published in Venue magazine, May 2010, www.venue.co.uk