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Fight Night explores the theatre of politics

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A few years ago, Belgian theatre director Alexander Devriendt had a wild idea: What if an audience could vote an actor off the stage?

Would they base their choice on character or performance, or something more superficial, like the way the person looked or spoke?

Then things went seriously wobbly in Belgian politics.

After a fragmented election result in which no party won enough seats to hold power, the country spent 541 days without a new government – giving Devriendt the inspiration to transform his original thought bubble into an interactive theatre production exploring what he describes as a shared crisis of faith in the political process.

In Fight Night, a co-production by Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed and Adelaide’s The Border Project, five contenders must fight and plead for approval and support, with audience members given electronic devices to vote for their favourite.

“There was this thing about how politics was going wrong,” writer and director Devriendt tells InDaily of the origins of the show, which will have its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Festival in March.

“I was also looking at my own voting behaviour: What makes me vote? Is it the person or the party? Is it because he looks nice or he has a nice character or what he says?

“I wanted to have a show which explored what if you just had the character – the personality traits, how he looks, how he thinks, how he seems? You take out the politics.”

The suggestion seems to be that many people form a view of a politician before they learn about his or her ideas. Ultimately, however, the interactive experience of Fight Night is intended to let audience members draw their own conclusions.

“We set out to say something about democracy, and I think we achieved that”

Those familiar with Ontroerend Goed’s earlier works – including The Smile Off Your Face,  A Game Of You and Internal, which were part of last year’s Adelaide Festival program – will know the company is not afraid to push boundaries and take the idea of “intimate” theatre to a new level. Indeed, its name is said to be best translated as “Feel Estate”.

However, Devriendt says Fight Night is less confronting than The Smile Off Your Face and Internal, adding that even theatre-goers who aren’t fond of interactivity should still enjoy the experience.

“It’s much more gentle … I get you to vote, but I leave you with your votes and what you can learn from it. I’m not going to confront you with that. Your vote is anonymous.

“We create a little micro-nation; we try to discover what you believe in and you will have the opportunity to engage in that way.

“Sometimes by being less provoking, you can be more confronting.”

Ontroerend Goed first performed The Smile Off Your Face at the Adelaide Fringe in 2008, winning the Fringe award for best theatre show, and Devriendt says it was members of The Border Project who introduced them to this city’s people and places.

With the Ruby Award-winning local company also committed to making “risky, playful” theatre, a collaboration between the two made perfect sense.

Devriendt says The Border Project helped him see that although events in Belgium were the trigger for Fight Night, the political issues it explored resonated in other countries such as Australia.

He also drew inspiration from the 2012 election campaign in the United States, with rehearsals occurring against the backdrop of the battle between Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“It was nice to broaden the question to look at democracy as a whole, and not only the problems in one democratic country.

“We’ve managed to make something that transcends our national boundaries. We set out to say something about democracy, and I think we achieved that.”

Fight Night will be performed at the Queen’s Theatre from March 13-16 as part of the 2014 Adelaide Festival.

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