What’s your favourite colour? What’s a song that makes you happy? Are you in love? These are all questions that Wesley Enoch throws at wary yet unaware Indigenous performers as part of Belvoir St Theatre’s production of 20 Questions. Enoch speaks with one person, to an audience, each Monday night.
The word ‘production’ is key here; key to understanding how the show sees itself, how the audience is prepped to watch it, and key to the increasingly self-referential quality of modern theatre. Enoch himself uses these terms. ‘Production’, ‘performance’, ‘show’. These are all used to describe 20 Questions at various points as it unfolds, from within the hugely intimate setting of Surry Hills’ Belvoir.
Several Mondays ago I was happy to see the delightfully charismatic Trevor Jamieson installment of this original production, co-devised by Enoch and Eamon Flack. Jamieson, known for his roles in Bran Nue Dae and Rabbit Proof Fence, was a natural. Shy like a schoolboy under a spotlight, he squirmed and giggled his way through Enoch’s questions in ‘Act 1’, answering many in a remarkably honest fashion, considering the probing nature of some that came (Do you ever wish you weren’t Indigenous?).
It’s uncomfortable in parts. On the night I attended the audience was not only predominately white, but white in its entirety. Contrast that with two Indigenous men on stage, us applauding their every move, and there’s an element of confrontation, intentional or not. Thankfully, this dissipates slightly as Enoch enters ‘Act 2’ and delves into a line of questioning that is far less fun, but far more important — questions about race, discrimination, abuse, death …
Australia is no post-racial paradise. These are frank discussions that decimate the fourth wall in a way I haven’t seen before. Perhaps overtly positing 20 Questions as a ‘production’, a ‘performance’, a ‘show’, is its own devious ploy. The pretense and comfort of the stage do not actually apply here.
Another recent theatre production that not only breaks the fourth wall but forces audiences to participate in its narrative is Fight Night, the theatrical lovechild of a high-stakes political election and a reality TV show. Sydney Theatre Company in partnership with Belgian theatre troupe Ontroerend Goed take Shakespeare’s ‘All The World’s A Stage’ monologue to its last logical signpost; the course of action is determined by anonymous audience votes each step of the way.
Upon entering the, again intimate, Wharf 2 Theatre at Walsh Bay, audience members are handed numbered pads to use throughout. At first it’s amusing, asking basic demographic questions of the crowd and then showing the results on stage-mounted screens. Household income? Highest education level? Sexist or racist tendencies? The statistics prompt waves of uncomfortable laughter from the audience.
Later we’re introduced to five ‘candidates’ who air their views, form alliances with each other, break political promises, and bow out as the votes fall … all sans any real context but we vote for and against them each round all the same. The political point is obvious; a stock-standard criticism of the modern democratic process. But to what end? It’s a storm in a teacup, a no-name election in a theatre.
And indeed all the men and women (audience included) are merely players. They have their exits and their entrances — the most striking of which is encouraged by one of the candidates, who at one point rebels against the entire process, leading willing audience members out of the theatre entirely, to miss the final act of the ‘play’, if you can call it such a thing.
This is the problem with thinking so far outside the box, or stage. Playing with traditional form, structure and the role of the audience versus the role of the actors is wonderful, but bypassing them completely is reckless and may cheapen the intended message of any given work. The technique overrides the content.
In this sense, the great thing about audience participation is that it’s a distraction, lulling you into laughter and the feel of the moment rather than absorbing or reflecting on what’s being performed in front of you — and it may well be the case that Fight Night has the exact same narrative each performance, the audience’s votes may actually not play a role at all.
20 Questions is different again in that it assumes a performative tone but never delivers on its promise. Whether or not the ‘show’ is enjoyable is almost immaterial as the format and concept are perhaps more suited to another medium. It’s arguable that fourth walls are meant to be broken, but easy goes it. It should not be the be all and end all of a ‘production’.