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Teenage Riot, Ontroerend Goed Teenage Riot, Ontroerend Goed
photo Sarah Walker
Cinema theory has a wonderful term that doesn’t quite have an equivalent in the discourse around theatre: exploitation. In both industry and critical parlance, the exploitation film has long been that which panders to a particular (often prurient) interest, ‘exploiting’ an exotic or vaguely taboo subject and equally ‘exploiting’ a niche audience attracted to such fare. These are the B-movies of suburban drive-ins, grindhouses and midnight marathons. Perhaps it says something of the overwhelming gentrification of theatre in the 20th century that equivalent alternative avenues have mostly failed to find popular appeal.

Ontroerend Goed, Teenage Riot

While viewing Ontroerend Goed’s Teenage Riot my mind kept returning to the subgenre of teensploitation. It’s a rich vein in film, canvasing everything from the saccharine beach party movies of the 60s to the sensational slashers of the 80s and the more respectable output of director John Hughes during the same period. Originally intended with no more noble goal than to rake in the pocket money of high schoolers, the teen film over time became a way for its typical consumer to develop a sophisticated and critical engagement, assessing the truth and artifice of the depictions on screen and defining an identity both through and against them.

Teenage Riot could be understood as a live comment on all of this. It’s the second part of Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of works performed entirely by teens, and it explicitly concerns itself with the spectatorship: for much of its running time the large staff of players are hidden inside a wooden box, manipulating handheld video cameras to reveal projected fragments of what’s going on inside. That the audience is therefore cast in the position of voyeur (another nod to film theory) isn’t just implicit. Performers offer teasing glimpses of bared flesh before laughing defiantly down the camera lens, make out with one another and offer instructional sermons on fingering, bully and brutalise and shrug it all off with irony or indifference.

The work could be a challenging, even confronting gesture of inter-generational defiance, and a knowing rebuke to elders who assume teens are incapable of reflecting upon their lot with any critical distance. But here’s why I really began pondering teensploitation: the work is billed as written and directed not by its performers but by Ontroerend Goed artistic director Alexander Devriendt and dramaturg Joeri Smet, neither of whom is close to his teens. I have no idea of the process of development the work underwent, but when a pair of adults append their names as the primary creators of a work concerned with teenage excess and libidinal overflow, which furthermore positions its audience as leering creeps—well, where are Devriendt and Smet in that equation? Teenage Riot leaves everyone looking a little bit dirty, except its notably absent makers.

Anna Jakoba Ryckewaert, All That is Wrong, Ontroerend Goed Anna Jakoba Ryckewaert, All That is Wrong, Ontroerend Goed
photo Elies Van Renterghem
Ontroerend Goed, All That is Wrong

The third in Ontroerend Goed’s teen trilogy, All That Is Wrong, is a refreshing curative. Performer Anna Jakoba Ryckewaert is also the work’s writer, in more than one sense: the piece consists of Ryckewaert scrawling countless words in chalk on an expanse of blackboard filling the floor of the playing space. The 18-year-old is joined by another youth, Zach Hatch, who films the text as it is written (and which is then projected against a backdrop) as well as operating sound cues. Occasionally the two will speak, but are silent for most of the work’s duration.

Ryckewaert writes the word ‘I’ and begins to add modifiers – ‘18’, ‘Belgian’, ‘introvert’ – which quickly spiral out to encompass a less certain and more connected cross-hatching of identity: corners of the space become crowded with personal fears or global horrors, while earlier sections are revisited and revised. The overall effect is cumulative: we are left with the unmistakeable sense of someone who both thinks and cares a great deal about the world into which she is graduating, and of a work that trusts its maker enough to let her do the talking. Or, at least, writing.

In Spite of Myself, Nicola Gunn In Spite of Myself, Nicola Gunn
photo Sarah Walker
Nicola Gunn, In Spite of Myself

Melbourne performance maker Nicola Gunn has for some years exploited the most interesting of subjects: herself. Or, at least, an amorphous figure known as ‘Nicola Gunn,’ though one could keep adding more and more quote marks around the name as the meta-theatrical frames around her investigation have continued to multiply. In Spite of Myself is her most accomplished (not to mention hilarious) experiment yet. It’s ostensibly a retrospective exhibition of works by Nicola Gunn entitled Exercises in Hopelessness—Nicola Gunn (1979-present), with a bonus lecture by Susan Becker, international curator at Arts Centre Melbourne. Becker is, of course, Gunn, but Gunn is not entirely Becker, just as ‘Gunn’ is not Gunn, and the way the performer flips between different masks rapidly begins to resemble the cups and ball trickery of a fleet-fingered street magician.

Where Gunn’s ongoing project is most interesting is in the way it amplifies the utter artificiality of theatre, and an extreme form of self-reflexivity that is consistently ahead of its audience, while remaining deeply autobiographical and resoundingly true. Gunn makes art about making art, but rather than descending into navel-gazing she dredges up the very intimate pains and absurdities of that experience. She exploits a trio of older women by giving them the task of fashioning hundreds of tiny clay figurines, which she promptly stomps all over. She rails against the recycling practices of the Arts Centre that is presenting her work, even though that work itself will end up as a very real pile of garbage by the show’s end.

And underlying the futile artistic acts in which Gunn indulges is the worry that all art is quite useless, that she is yelling into a void. Where many peers stall at precisely that point, Gunn (or ‘Gunn’) somehow forces her audience to join hands and yell with her, creating a shared experience she describes as a heterotopia, though naming it seems just one more futile gesture. In Spite of Myself is, indeed, an argument against its own premise, an effacement of Nicola Gunn that produces a sort of ur-identity among her viewers. It’s bloody funny, too.

Emily Milledge, Room of Regret, The Rabble Emily Milledge, Room of Regret, The Rabble
photo David Paterson
The Rabble, Room of Regret

That “all art is quite useless” is the contradictory provocation that prefaces Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, the latest text to be mercilessly ravaged by Melbourne outfit The Rabble. As with all of the company’s work, a familiarity with its source(s) offers no magic key to unlocking its secrets, and Room of Regret is in some respects its most inward, mysterious production so far.

The performance occurs within a maze-like installation in which audiences are split up and seated in separate rooms. Performers are often invisible to a good portion of that audience, then, or mediated via screen and projection. The text is similarly splintered, with short portions of Wilde’s words carved from their context and repeated over long durations, usually in a heightened and histrionic manner.

The visual realisation of the work is decadent, lush, almost overpoweringly so, drawing in influences from the Baroque and Victorian to 70s glam and contemporary performance art. The design, too, is both disorienting and appropriate—in separating audiences and their gazes, we are no longer the crowd but become keenly aware of our disconnectedness in a shared experience. Excess and anomie thus shift from themes in a novel to very palpable sensations in this work, and once again where The Rabble exceed most others is in producing this visceral, rather than literal, conjuring of a written text’s essence. It’s uneasy, incomplete, even hard to like, but almost impossible not to admire.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Ontroerend Goed, Teenage Riot, director Alexander Devriendt, writers Joeri Smet, Alexander Devriendt, Fairfax Studio, 15-18 Oct; Ontroerend Goed, All That Is Wrong, writer Anna Jakoba Ryckewaert, director Alexander Devriendt, Fairfax Studio, 19-20 Oct; Sans Hotel, In Spite of Myself, creators Nicola Gunn, Gwen Holmberg-Gilchrist, Pier Carthew, Michael Fikaris, performers Nicola Gunn, Maureen Hartley, Brenda Palmer, Annabel Warmington, Fairfax Studio, 9-13 Oct; The Rabble, Room of Regret, creators Emma Valente, Kate Davis, director Emma Valente, design Kate Davis, performers Pier Carthew, David Harrison, Alex McQueen, Emily Milledge, Mary Helen Sassman. Theatre Works, St Kilda, Melbourne, 21 Oct-3 Nov

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 33

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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