Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Smile Off Your Face, One on One Festival at BAC

Review: The Smile Off Your Face, One on One Festival at BAC

Another day, another wheelchair rickshaw ride…

Ontroerend Goed’s The Smile Off Your Face seems the most appropriate place to start my journey through the BAC’s One on One Festival, a fortnight of performances to and encounters for individuals. Here ‘audience’ is not a collective term, but a personal pronoun. Without wanting to disrespect those artists that have been (intentionally) playing to lone audience members for years, I’d argue that this festival has its roots in another one: the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe. At the (then) new venue, C Soco, two shows forced us to ask that age-old question of aesthetics: “But is it theatre?” One was Six Women Standing in Front of a White Wall, which did exactly what it said on the tin in a manner that achieved so much more. The other was The Smile Off Your Face.

The coincidental combination, which received a great deal of inquisitive media coverage, gained enough of a profile to prick the interests of artists and audiences alike. Both played with theatrical form – very successfully – and opened up a whole range of previously untapped possibilities. More importantly (arguably), both seemed to achieve economic viability, perhaps even success, in an overcrowded, over-competitive marketplace by employing an alternative format for a production run. This was novel; a curiosity that excited us and that whet our appetites for a new kind of audience-performer relationship.

Having both read about The Smile Off Your Face and heard its director Alexander Devriant talk about the piece, I could only approach it as a museum piece. Its crux, much like Internal, is a swift, clinical 360° turn on its heels that changes everything. To know the twist, you’d think, would be to break the show. And yet, remarkably, it didn’t. My experience – though perhaps muted by prior knowledge – was far more intense than anticipated. That, surely, is credit to the craftsmanship behind it.

Sat in a wheelchair, participants are blindfolded and restrained with hand ties, before being pushed into a room. No amount of forewarning can fully prepare you for the level of vulnerability experienced. Thus pacified, one becomes totally dependent on the guidance of others.

What follows is a series of sensual moments. In amongst the sounds of the open air (the chirps and chatter of birds and crickets), more human sounds emerge, all only semi-identifiable. Here a watch ticking, there the flicker of pages in a book, then the whir of a Polaroid camera. Something tickles the tips of your hair, a seemingly disembodied nose presses up against yours, the scent of perfume (or is it aftershave?) catches your attention. Your hands are led to a face, which is unexpectedly – joltingly, even – bearded. At times, one is ushered gently out of the chair for a moment of contact with another entirely anonymous body. Words are whispered, questions are asked.

Its ingenuity is to toy with your submission, lulling you into security – the same tingle of a head-massage before a haircut, sometimes more charged with a hint of the erotic – before abandoning you momentarily. With one hand it feeds, with the other its forces; it treats and it withholds; it never oversteps the mark (too far).

What’s interesting is that, like Internal, there’s a direct echo of prostitution within. At one point, you’re thrown backwards onto a bed, where you lie entwined with an unseen performer, her weight (perhaps his for women) resting on your chest and leg draped over yours. It’s an echo so familiar that the emotions follow – comfort, arousal, calm – as if the body takes a shape, the senses get a clue or two and the mind syncs up accordingly. It made me realise that the booths of Internal contain not only the false privacy of a speed date, but also of something seedier: the strip club. By extension, one realises that we too have paid for this experience. I couldn’t but think of Nicholas Ridout’s discussion of the transaction at the heart of theatre (and art more generally) in Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems:

One can easily indulge in the fantasy that the poet, the painter or the composer, whose work is accomplished in your absence, might simply create art for its own sake. It is much harder to keep this delusion intact in the presence of workers who are doing their work in your presence. The prostitute who is both seller and commodity is emblematic of modern capitalism for Benjamin, because she makes visible the nature of the underlying terms. The moment you recognise the actor in similar terms, a certain awkwardness or embarrassment comes into the relationship. Of course, such embarrassment only really surfaces at moments of crisis, at which the reality of the economic relation is somehow precipitated into view.

Does, I wonder, the entire movement of one on one theatre count as such a crisis? Does it rely on the awkward embarrassment of worker and consumer? Who’s in control? Who panders to whose needs and desires? Why do we often feel grateful? Why does it often feel like a gift?

As for that revelation, well, I shan’t spoil it (look elsewhere if you must), but it’s summed up in a single teardrop. Towards the end, your blindfold is whipped off and you find yourself face to face with a performer, sat in front of a wall covered in Polaroids. He points yours out, there’s a slightly startled, totally unguarded look on your masked face. You realise he has a beard. He asks you to smile, you do so. It feels like an age. Your cheeks relax, your smile subsides. When he asks for the smile again (and again), you force it. Over a minute, never losing focus on your straining, smiling eyes, he pushes out a single teardrop. It means the world, but it’s totally manipulated.

As you’re wheeled away, backwards out of the space, the realisation lands. You know that you’ve been had as much as it knows it’s had you. And The Smile Off Your Face ends with a wink, saying as much.

Photograph: Battersea Arts Centre

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