Theatre Critic and Journalist

Going Back Inside: Internal Revisited

Going Back Inside: Internal Revisited

It’s been three weeks since I experienced Internal and, like a lot of others, I’m still mulling over its mechanics with a quiet regularity. Tube journeys, solo cigarettes and horizontal half-hours before sleep kicks in have all been invaded by puzzles of its logic and ethics. By refusing to be defined in black and white, to be one thing or the other, Internal brims with perplexing paradoxes. I’m still not sure I can put my finger on what, but something still rankles. I’m sure it’s unethical, I’m just not sure why. There must, I keep thinking, be something undeclared.

First, though, an admission that my response has changed since writing my initial review for Culture Wars. More precise, in fact, to say that it has softened or half-healed. At the time of writing, the experience was still fresh and the wounds still raw. The emotive nature of my writing holds true for the five days immediately after experiencing it. Then, I received a letter.

This letter, to be precise:

Dear Matt,

I wasn’t really aware of it in the moment, but afterwards it dawned on me that I treated you very harshly. I guess I was a little disappointed that you weren’t gay – because I thought you had a very charming, lovely smile and beautiful eyes. I’m sorry if you felt bashed – it’s completely my mistake.

Now the truth: you struck me as a very talented, sensitive guy with a lot of potential. I’d love to come visit you in London – or in Greece, watching a glorious sunset – and I promise, I will be nice…



The effect of this letter – which feels ten times more precious as a tangible, hand-written object– was to bring closure. The rejection that I encountered during Internal, whereby Joeri passed a damning judgement after our shared ten minutes alone in the booth, was astute enough to really get at me. It scratched away for five days precisely because it threw traits of my personality that I recognise, dislike and resent back at me. I did feel bashed, but with (what felt like) shrewd observation and honesty that left me full of self-loathing: angry at Joeri, angry at Internal and Ontroerend Goed and, most of all, angry at myself. (Needless to say, I got very, very drunk afterwards.)

The letter brought closure because it tippexed over the immediate dissection and judgement that left me smarting. It admitted that it had been wrong. Or, if not wrong exactly, deliberately harsh. Spin and lies. This was calm reflection, not snap reaction. This was heartfelt. This was “the truth”.

Of course, it’s no such thing. The letter flatters and fawns, but, in reality, it’s no more true (or false) than any of the judgements passed in the performance-event. It made me feel better simply and solely because it said nice things. I wanted to believe it, where before I wanted to doubt. It is simply another mode of perspective, one that celebrates rather than castigates. It is equally and oppositely spun; equally performed and equally motivated.

Far be it from Ontroerend Goed not to leave a clue and, sure enough, there it is in the return address on the back of the envelope:

Traverse Theatre,
c/o Internal – Joeri
10 Cambridge Street,
Edinburgh, EH1 2ED
That the address given is not Joeri’s home address, presumably in Belgium, nor even his temporary residence in Edinburgh, but that of the theatre itself, goes some way to explaining Internal. Over at Postcards, Andrew Haydon recently wrote: “Having established that you have to interact with them, thus already breaking more traditional theatrical rules, you are then in the strange position of not knowing precisely who or what you’re interacting *with*.” I’m not sure I agree. Even as you experience it, it seems obvious that you are interacting with a creature or construct of the theatre, one with no existence or counterpart in the ‘real’ world. Internal never lets you (totally) forget that your opposite number is a performer and, as such, you know yourself to be interacting with a persona rather than a person. The rules of their individual performances – though they are not laid out in full – always make their presence known. We know that we are playing a game, we’re just not sure what the game is.

This is crucial to the success of Internal’s mechanics in two ways. First, our mode of working out the rules of the encounter in the moment is based on recognition according to prior experience and knowledge. We are led into a booth with another person, there’s a candle glowing, we sit across a table from our partner. Instantly, we identify the situation according to similar encounters in real life (or assumptions about them). Take, for example, the moment after two drinks are poured by the performer. Joeri’s signature tipple was Schnapps. Two shot glasses sit on the table. We lift them together. We chink and cheers. I throw mine down my throat, because that’s what we do with shots. Joeri sips. Then, he makes a point of this fact. “Oh,” he says, surprised, “I sip mine.” And there I am, further on the back foot.

In fact, Internal as a whole relies on a similar shift in the rules. We go from one situation, seemingly intimate and private, into another, public and ruthlessly exposing. Our actions and responses within the first section are appropriate to the situation we believe ourselves to be in and only later, once we discover an ulterior set of motives, do they seem inappropriate or misjudged. It’s not that we are suddenly made aware of the theatrical setting, of the fiction or unreality of those moments, as this is made clear from the start. Rather, it’s that we are duped into accepting it as one game, play along accordingly, and transpire to have been mistaken. Unless we enter forewarned, there’s no way we could have known. We trust and we are betrayed. Or, we assume (wrongly) and we pay the price.

Many responses have taken this to be the source of Internal’s wrongdoings. It fools us, it tricks us, it seduces us and then turns on us, therefore it’s unethical. For me, that’s fine. In fact, that’s the beauty of it. I like that it doesn’t pander to what we want from it. I like that it’s not afraid to fuck us over. Quite frankly, why shouldn’t it? Internal makes no claims of honesty, so we have no reason to expect honesty of it, do we?

Internal never lets us forget that it is a performance and, therefore, in some way pre-conceived. We sit and wait outside with four other people, nervously pondering what we might experience. We see five shaken, smiling, exhilarated figures come out of the space we are about to enter. We are ushered in and given a single instruction: “Stand on the white cross”. We pass a dressing room with five writing desks. We see walls covered in letters, a sign of its own history. The curtain goes up and we know the ten feet and five faces that appear to belong to performers – not least because the publicity tells us so. We know that they know more than us. We know that we are on a conveyor belt. We know that, no matter how much it looks and feels like it, this isn’t everyday reality. We know that they are in control. We know that the rules might not be the same inside as they are on the outside.

With all this knowledge, surely we have only ourselves to blame? Some have hung on this the ethical problem at Internal’s core, namely that the notion of risk is skewed. Internal, they say, requires its audience to risk something of themselves without itself risking anything. Internal reverses the usual directional order of risk in performance. Again, I don’t find this satisfactory. First, because why shouldn’t it? Doesn’t Rotozaza’s Wondermart do the same? Besides, I’d argue that we are more concerned with our risks than are the company/performers. To them, it is one of many; that you have risked is surely far more important than what you risk. Just as you don’t judge the other four audience members for their actions anywhere near the extent that you judge yourself, the information divulged, reflected and publicly revealed means more to you than it does to them or anyone else present.

Second, I think there is risk on the part of the performers, precisely because of the response that their behaviour could elicit. Sliding a photo of oneself across a table, baring one’s chest, kissing a stranger, asking intrusive questions are all actions that carry some element of danger. Yes, there is an imbalance in that the performers have signed up to take those risks knowingly and willingly, whereas we only discover ourselves to be risking something in the moment or, worse, after having done so. Again it’s only by changing the rules halfway through that Internal discloses the risks we’ve taken and, by that point, it’s too late. We’ve already risked and we’re facing the consequences.

But once again, why shouldn’t it? After all, theatre has no obligation to consistency and no obligation to subscribe to your expectations. Wouldn’t it be terribly boring, even pointless, if it did? More importantly, theatre makes no promises to play by the rules of life. In fact, it often relies directly upon our not doing so. Wouldn’t all theatre fail if we approached it in the same manner as everyday life? We could never suspend our disbelief, we could never read its signs, we would never accept it’s content.

This is the second crucial element of Internal’s mechanics; it depends on our status as audience, rather than simply as people. Internal would never work were it not labelled as a theatre event. It could not extract the information and actions that it needs in order for the second act to function. As audience we are always active; sometimes more so than others, but we always have some role to play. Even the most conventional theatre depends on our collaboration, our ‘going along with it’. So too does Internal, but, and here’s the kicker, it never declares this shift in our behaviour. It doesn’t forewarn us that we will be more inclined towards its charms than we would have otherwise been were it not framed as theatre.

By virtue of its being theatre, we assume certain things about Internal’s motives. Where in real life, we might approach it with guarded distrust, here we open up because we assume its motives are grounded in aesthetics rather than ethics, we assume that all it does it does in reverend care of us, ie for our benefit as audience, rather than for its own gratification or advantage.

For this reason, in hindsight, the two most telling moments of my Internal experience both involved doing something that, in that present moment, I was consciously unwilling to do. At the end, Joeri asked me to dance. Based on his actions immediately before, I genuinely did not want to do so, but there I was, dancing stiltedly, looking over his shoulder with gritted teeth, quietly seething until awkwardness set in and the dance dissolved. Two men just standing opposite one another, staring in silence, until he asked for my address. Again, in spite of consciously felt reservations, I wrote it down, even adding the bizarre qualifier: “Come visit (but be nice).”

I’m fine that Internal manipulates, because you’re aware of being manipulated even as you succumb to it. However, what it doesn’t reveal is our proneness to manipulation as audience. For this reason, Internal’s not as seductive, sly and charming it makes you think. It doesn’t need to be, because it preys upon the weak and that, for me, is problematic.


  1. You've articulated some of the things which made the piece so fascinating but which I couldn't quite describe. It's amazing how it has tunnelled into our minds and refuses to leave.

    What do you think about their (the performers'/the piece itself's) awareness of the problems that you're identifying? I mean to say that a part of me feels like they are aware of the manipulative, even destructive potential of the work, and so unleashing it upon its audience members is deliberately confrontational in that it seems to provoke us to respond…as you have here!

  2. I've been following the debate about this show with fascination, but I have to say your posts are the first that have given me an idea of what Internal might have been like to attend. I am quite sure that I wouldn't have enjoyed it: although I think too that I would have found it fascinating.

    Those moments when the willing suspension of disbelief is genuinely smashed into a direct continuity with one's actual life are deeply disconcerting (and, I must say, very rare). I think it's happened to me once in all my years of going to the theatre, and then only for a moment. This sounds like a show that actually does this. My ethical worry would be in the same territory as yours (that of exploiting the desire to be liked and fear of rejection that inhabits all of us), but I also find myself wondering about the premise of theatre that does this. Predatory, as you say, and certainly manipulative, because the balance of power between actor and audience in those situations would be quite particular to the event of theatre. And therefore different than the encounters – however predatory and exploitative they might also be – on which it clearly bases itself.

  3. Josh, I'm sure they're aware of the potential in this piece. After all, they've lived it for longer than any of us. They've seen the whole spectrum of responses: from being approached in the streets to causing arguments in real life relationships.

    Alison, thanks for your kind words and yes, I think you're right that it can never be the same as that on which it models itself. It is necessarily framed. Again, I'm sure the company are aware of its being reliant on this. Their mission statement includes the following: “Ontroerend Goed creates its own material, whereby the form is a statement about the relation between the audience and the creators. Through a formal openness that simultaneously surprises, confronts, excites and demands personal input, Ontroerend Goed aims for an active, self-conscious audience. The riches and diversity of theatrical codes are a playground for Ontroerend Goed. Humour and relativisation are indispensible, as well as the freedom not to cherish taboos.” It's certainly got its audience. But does it have a duty to flag up what that relationship can make manifest beforehand or is the piece itself doing that? If so, then that's fine, but surely we also have the right to feel aggrieved by it?

    Perhaps Internal is protected by the frame in and of itself, but we're still right to throw stones its way. Can it be both ethically acceptable and unacceptable at once?

  4. I watched Internal a mere 2 days ago and I must say, it has stayed in my consciousness since then and will be for a long time to come. You did a great job of articulating the many conflicting emotions I felt about the piece. While it was fascinating and alluring to me, especially since I was paired up with a very charming, accommodating woman who was almost like a maternal figure, some of her comments made me rethink myself and my identification as perceived by others. Things were made more complex as my boyfriend was there, but no one knew of our relationship except the two of us. I was privy to a very generous view of his lady partner who bared her chest and asked him if it was what he wanted, to which he replied “not really”. That particular scene has been replaying in my mind constantly – what was he really thinking? Would he have said “yes” if I were not present? Was anyone observing me for signs of jealousy or distaste? How should I feel about a player (unknowingly) manipulating my feelings through my relationship with him?

    I remember trying to cultivate an aesthetic distance from the scene, but it caused many complicated emotions to surface. It certainly has caused me to reevaluate certain aspects of myself and yes, manipulated me into a false sense of friendship with the lady I was partnered with. Thought-provoking. Cruel at times, but thought-provoking indeed. Right now I'm looking forward to receiving my letter and am extremely curious about what it will contain…

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