Woyzeck, een digitale waanvoorstelling by Zephyr Brüggen and others – seen on 12 May 2020, online
Lees de Nederlandse versie van deze recensie hier
In ‘normal times’, they might not choose to do it like this. To still remain visible in the crowded theatre field, tonight Woyzeck’s audience meets with some actors in a Zoom video conference. At a set time. Once we have started, no one is allowed in. Just like in the real theatre.
Before the start of the show, we meet in the digital foyer, everyone within their own frame, neatly arranged in a grid. In some frames, there are two faces instead of one. I spot people I haven’t seen for years, or who I spoke to once at some festival or networking event. In the theatre, I would have had a chat – or probably just waved.
Waving at someone who doesn’t see you – or even worse: waving back at someone who didn’t wave at you but someone else – is already embarrassing in the analogue foyer, but here it’s very… noticeable. Shall I start a private chat then? What if they don’t recognise me? Maybe they are looking at me and making eye contact, but that could just as well be meant for someone else, no matter if it is in vain. A couple of people in the gallery view start smirking simultaneously: they probably are chatting privately.
All on mute
We are given instructions: in a moment, we should all switch our screen to speaker view, where the frame in which is spoken (i.e. by the actors) appears enlarged, with only a few small frames above it. A clear hierarchy, just like in the theatre. They talk under the spotlight and we sit silently in the dark, hidden in the crowd. Most in this audience try to mimic that focus at home: headphones on, lights off. Although the latter doesn’t make much sense, daylight still shines into their rooms. Sometimes they just turn off their camera, after which their names appear on the screen in a large font. Alas, not as anonymous as in the theatre.
An invisible entity puts us all on mute, so we cannot disturb each other or the actors. “Different from normal theatre, and therefore better!” It appears so, seen as one woman happily continues her phone conversation. It takes a few full minutes before she realises that the performance has already started.
However, the deal here is that we don’t look at each other, we have to give our full attention to the actors. Meanwhile, while trying to keep an eye on the performance, I google the question of how I, as an individual audience reviewer, am able to watch the gallery view without being reset to speaker view after half a second. I don’t find the answer quickly enough, missed what was said for a moment, so I give up. I’m resigned to just clicking on arrows so I keep an overview of the small frames. With 105 participants, this is quite an undertaking. Although, most of the frames are now black, with only a name or a profile picture visible. David Bowie is there too, I see. Some have, very pre-corona, just taped off their camera.
Then we suddenly hear music and, instead of the actors, the audience is highlighted, one by one, in the big frame. The first faces in the picture look a bit uncomfortable initially, but then they get up to do some dancing. More cameras switch on again. One dances, the other smiles a little sheepishly, people toast their drinks in the air and wave at their screen.
After the dance interlude, the performance, and with it the audience, continues with new energy. I continue clicking back and forth to get a better look at the audience. Someone is called “JOEP” and that reminds me of a short clip, but I can’t remember what it was from, so I have to look it up. Once I find the clip, it looks like I’ve missed all sorts of things again.
I quickly click back to the audience frames in speaker view and am suddenly confronted with my own reflection among the other faces. Did the others see that I was distracted? That doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself! In the theatre hall, I also constantly have associations and memories, but then I can keep myself from grabbing my phone. With my laptop in front of me, I didn’t even think about it. Even though I would feel way more anonymous in a dark hall…
This panopticon, surely a metaphor I have seen more often with theatre audiences, takes on another layer in this setting: you see all the eyes, but are they looking at you? Every person is an abyss: you never know ‘in real life’ whether the other person sees, experiences, thinks exactly the same as you do. Technology adds an extra mindfuck: everyone sees the grid in a different order, or sees no grid at all, has their own settings and preferences and versions of the programme. Moreover, you never know what’s going on outside the grid.
No, probably no one has just noticed my absence. I do see someone else look at their phone, and for the first time in my theatre-audience-viewing career, that cheers me up. Others sit back more comfortably, grabbing a wine, having brief conversations with someone in or just off screen. Children, cats and other housemates walk in and out of the frames. In all rooms, both with the audience and actors, the sun slowly sets at the same time.
In the theatre, this lack of undivided attention would have been downright rude, but thanks to technology, it doesn’t matter. Those who are bothered by it can simply choose a different perspective. Those who do enjoy peering at the audience while watching theatre can now feast their eyes on the others’ interior design choices. The ability to hold a beer in your hand or go to the toilet at any moment gives it almost a festival vibe, theatre as it once originated thousands of years ago.
During the live post-discussion (with 60 people – I’ve never been to such a crowded post-talk), the conversation soon turns to the mutual agreement not to look at each other. Not everyone adhered to it, which they said added to their entertainment. Someone who has been ‘good’ has the feeling of having missed something. That also makes the experience like theatre: this was a one-off, it will not come back.
Indeed, watching live, at home on the couch, does make this audience want more. The focus is different, but not necessarily worse. In the regular theatre, you also watch the others. There you can’t mute them.
This audience receives three out of five stars.*
*We give three stars to all audiences, because a three-star review tells nothing about an artwork.