Veteran Dutch company Dood Paard’s new show Answer Me is one of the most comprehensive failures I have ever witnessed in a theatre.
That it failed is undisputed. Of a starting audience of maybe 300, roughly a third left before the end. Of those who remained until it finished half simply left instead of applauding. And, judging by every conversation I had or overheard afterwards, those who did clap were just being polite. What is more interesting is how and why it failed. And, moreover, why it provoked such an actively hostile response.
Answer Me is billed as a performance about interrogation. This is just about a fair description of its starting point. Four performers stage take to the stage dressed in a mixture of military uniform and spangly, tarty kitsch. Think Rocky Horror Show in a mixture of khaki and gold lamé. They immediately begin by barking a series of questions at the audience:
“Who are you? What's your name? How old are you? Where do you come from? Are you a journalist? Do you love me? Are you Dutch? Turkish? Portuguese? Do you even know where that is, Portugal? What they speak there? What do you speak, actually? Can you even speak? Why are you here? What were you doing in Pakistan? What were you doing in Utrecht? What were you doing in Riga? Are you married and if yes, why? Was there a woman who wanted to marry you? A man perhaps? Where do you come from? What're you after here? What have you done? Name? Age? Profession? Keep your head up! You are a terrorist! We’ve got you now! And we’ll give it to you good! You fuckers! Have you ever worn blue shoes? Have you ever seen kid’s films? Do you drink water! Do you love your mother? Do you love your father? Did Tommy Cooper pay for your ticket? Have you ever had a pet? A dog, a cat, or a marmot? Or a Negro? Have you ever experimented with explosives? Would you like to work for us? You’ll mix in interesting circles. Harley bikers’ circles. Would you tell us something interesting? Can we arrange a fine place for you to spend the night? Nice and warm. With a mattress. And a blanket. A shower. If you cooperate with us you’ll be able to sleep in peace. As long as you want. I know that your God gives you power. You’ve been living in those tiny cages for so long. No one could keep that up. You all pray and your God helps you. Otherwise you’d go crazy of course. Do you love me? Answer me! Bastard! I love you.”
(copied and pasted from their website, here)
You get a rough sense from the above of the tone of the thing, but perhaps not quite enough of an idea of just how childish it sounded. And then, working against this already underwhelming text are the unspeakably bad performances. The basic mode is that of the grotesque. To this end, the performers gurn like mad and shout in deliberately ugly voices, while twisting their bodies like a line of schoolchildren desperate for the loo. It is so one-note as to be almost a parody of how to bore on stage – how to perform in a way guaranteed to switch any audience off.
The lines are distributed apparently at random between the four performers (joined later by a fifth). They are shouted at the audience. Sometimes they are addressed to a single person, sometimes thrown open to the whole audience. The “you” here pings between singular and plural.
Pretty quickly you get a sense of the piece’s concerns: terrorism, perhaps most specifically Islamist terrorism, state homophobia and state racism. Beyond this, there then begins a series of more pointed accusations that could increasingly be read as attacks on the audience for being complacent, apathetic dupes of Western capitalism.
This is pretty galling. We’ve all read (and maybe even seen) Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, but now the thing that’s most offending this audience is seeing a very old idea trotted out again quite so flagrantly and ineptly. But I’m not quite sure that’s the whole story.
There are two far more basic, central problems. Firstly, there was the irritating inaccuracy of the accusations combined with the sheer stupidity of the assumptions behind them which the company were making, added to the fact that they were on stage in front of us wasting our time with this stupid, boring, patronising, clichéd, GCSE-Marxist stuff as if they were possessed of some new, radical bits of thinking.
Following on from this irritation, the second major problem was that either singly or collectively we were being asked questions. And there was no indication whatsoever whether or not we were meant to respond. So, we sit there listening to these trite constructions of ourselves framed as questions and completely unsure if we’re meant to respond in any way. Since, through the piece, an increasing number of the insults hinge on the fact that we don’t have thought enough in our heads to respond, this presents an interesting dilemma. Patently a vast majority of the people in that theatre had plenty to say. One got the sense that everyone was not responding out of politeness either to the performers on stage or to their fellow audience members.
It’s really hard to know what the company imagine the show achieves.
It also feels almost impossible to write about it without giving the impression that this was “edgy”, “challenging”, or “confrontational”. You’ll just have to trust me.
The sloganeering is rubbish. Every observation is a commonplace. The performances are just terrible. You get the impression that everyone on stage thinks they’re being terribly shocking – that they’re really presenting you with ideas you’ve never heard before – making connections between things that you could never have thought of, when in fact they are compiling the most banal, over-exposed list of associations imaginable.
And of course it occurs to you that maybe this is the point. Maybe it’s about the boredom and how rubbish the performances are, and about how shallow and idiotic the politics are. And about how everything everyone says on stage is manifestly less intelligent than the stupidest thought anyone in the audience had before breakfast. But even if that is the point (and there’s a worrying sense that it isn’t) it isn’t a very good one, or an interesting one, or even one that’s being very well made or pointfully prosecuted.
It amounts a sort of checklist of the most trite list of observations of life under advanced Western capitalism imaginable. The sort of thing that a disaffected Rage Against The Machine fan could have knocked up in half an hour.
By this point, people had started to leave in a steady tickle that was turning into a stream.
Then, as if to demonstrate a complete lack of their grasp of stagecraft or even of the meaning of what they were doing, about half way through the performers produce a chair and one of them sits in it. From this moment, half the questions still being yelled by the other performers are directed at him, while other questions were still thrown out to the audience or barked at individual audience members. The on-stage interrogation could in no way be said to amount to anything even slightly approaching drama (or post-drama), while the other questioning remained as superficial as before. What the change of focus does do, however, is demonstrate that even the performers didn’t have enough faith in the original format to believe it could sustain an hour.
By this stage the hostility in the audience had reached the stage where several clumps of people who hadn’t left were chatting quite openly amongst themselves, phones were being flagrantly checked, the rudeness from the stage was essentially being responded to in kind.
Sadly, the performers didn’t really seem to have the faintest idea what to do with all this negative energy they’d produced. Apparently this wasn’t the aim at all. They all looked a bit uncomfortable. In between trying to shout lines aggressively at us, they looked a bit worried by the number of people leaving. Again, it’s hard to convey how clear it was that this wasn’t the point. Even writing this, it sounds interesting, and perhaps like the sort of thing that Forced Entertainment might have made, and which would have been good.
But, still the performers continued to act in a way that was at once unwatchable and perfectly suited to their obnoxious text. And still people kept on filing out of the theatre.
It’s very hard to pin down precisely what it was that pissed everyone off more: the fact that nothing about the material being presented was anything new or the fact that the whole thing was just so childishly obnoxious. It was one of those pieces that, if it had been created by students whose sole purpose had been an experiment in getting a reaction out of an audience, provoking real hostility, then one might have been able to credit them with having at least achieved this aim, regardless of one’s view of such a purpose. But the problem here was that the piece really did seem to think it was being clever.
Infrequently there were bits where the performers on stage broke into ironic (or perhaps it wasn’t ironic) applause. They encourage the audience to join in. The audience joined in. We were still being asked questions. Still no one had really responded. No. That’s not true. At one point in the middle a girl in the front row had been asked what her name was and she’d said. No one else had said anything in response to anything.
It was during one of the rounds of applause that I decided to see what level of engagement was being asked for. The applause stopped. I didn’t. I kept clapping for a bit. I was interested to see what would happen next. I was also interested to know whether anyone else would join in. If I’m entirely honest, part of me hoped that if everyone had immediately joined in, then we might be able to close the show early with a display of group solidarity suggesting that the show was over whether the performers liked it or not.
The performers looked surprised. I had at least assumed they’d have some sort of contingency plan for dealing with responses from the audience. After all, this is a text which asks between 20 and 60 questions a minute for an hour. And apparently there’s no back up plan as to what to do if anyone actually responds all the accusations of being bovine and empty-headed by refusing to play along.
This demonstrated the piece’s greatest and most ugly weakness. Here was a show all about accusing the audience of being weak and complicit in their own servitude and of not having a clue, and yet it could only present this argument if the audience were polite enough to sit there and let that accusation be the case.
And even this might be fine if the audience were meant or allowed to challenge these accusations, but since the show’s producer later told me that it wasn’t meant to be what happened, then it really is impossible to see what conceivable value there was to any of it.
I shan’t even go into the extent to which it felt embarrassing watching Dutch performers doing such a terrible show that about totalitarianism, homophobia or state interrogation in front of a largely Estonian (and other Baltic states) audience who have only been free of Soviet occupation for 19 years. The combination of terrible text and terrible performances coupled with distinct impression that these people really thought they were doing us a favour by telling us about what a terrible place they thought the world was only heightened one’s embarrassment for them. The sheer arrogance of it was quite breathtaking.
The most worrying thing was that afterwards the company really didn’t seem to have grasped just how utterly, terribly, offensively, dreadfully misguided the whole thing was. Apparently it had worked perfectly well in a smaller space in Portugal. Excuses about the size of the venue and the audience’s comprehension of the (poorly delivered) English text abounded.
I hope that on sober, mature reflection, the company bin the project entirely and start something else altogether. It is a piece of theatre with absolutely no value whatsoever. It is trite, simplistic and patronising. It doesn’t understand its own relationship to the stage or to its audience.
Sometimes, the only constructive criticism possible is: You’re wrong. This doesn’t work on any level. Please, please stop.