Jointly presented by Ontroerend Goed and The Border Project, Fight Night challenges me with an unprecedented, unimaginable and unforgettable experience that almost prompts me to re-evaluate what theatre means and how many possibilities it may generate, in addition to the thought-provoking political overtones.
Not surprisingly, in view of the current political climate in Hong Kong, local commentators tend to focus on the political lessons and inspirations of the performance, but I find the format itself even more interesting. The heavily interactive format and the engaging plot are completely out of my limited, conventional understanding of what may be called "drama". To me it is a successful and inspirational attempt to blur and break the barriers on and off the stage, although few critiques seem to have discussed this aspect. Neither did the director and playwright Alexander Devriendt offer any light from this perspective in his interview with Katrien Brys published in the programme booklet.
In retrospect, the performance, or the "reality game show" as it was reported in the South China Morning Post, began long before the moderator declared it open. It started when each spectator was given an electronic voting device as he or she walked into the theatre. The performance was built on the five questions thrown at the audience, who were invited to choose the best answer by pressing the right button on the voting device. Results were shown on the four-sided screen hanging over the central stage after each round of votes were cast.
While it remains a mystery whether the results shown truly reflected the choices of the audience in that particular performance, I didn't cast any doubt on the genuineness of everything until, if I remember correctly, the third question. I can't no longer remember what it was, but there was a click in my head as if something had smelled fishy. As the plot moved on with candidates voted out one by one, and the dramatic developments unfolded with exceedingly active participation by some spectators, I came to realise that it was perhaps one of the best designed and devised manipulation ever seen, and participated, on stage. I mean, the audience seats were also part of the stage, although we didn't know in the first place.
Simply put, I was lured into participating in the voting exercise without knowing in the first place that the results could have been distorted, manipulated or even fabricated. More intriguingly, even though my doubts grew towards the end of the performance, the temptation of pressing the button on my voting device remained hardly resistible. I answered all five questions dutifully with little hesitation. Indeed, I did what I was told – to exercise my free will of choice when I wasn't really sure whether or not it mattered. I just assumed that it did.
The compellingly interactive format of Fight Night resonates well with Marshall McLuhan's famous catchphrase, "The medium is the message." The performance calls into question the genuineness of the poll results, the meaning of the vote, representation of and relationship between majority and minority, respect for individualism and collectivism and so on, you name it. Without enabling on-the-spot participation of the audience, the message would not have been as profound and articulate as it is.
When asked whether every generation carries a responsibility or an intellectual obligation to change the world they live in for the better, Mr Devriendt said in the interview that he would replace the word "change" for "question". "Not everybody has that intelligence, that verbal power and the persistence to keep on hitting nails on the head. I don't count myself among them," he was quoted as saying. "I'm a theatre maker, not a great intellectual thinker and nor a social critic. In the best case I give food for thought to the people who come to see my shows, as some sort of service-hatch." I can't agree more with him. One of the reasons why there are so many confrontations and hostilities that are seemingly irreconcilable is that too many people are eager to make a difference, but too few of them would bother to spare a moment to ask some serious questions about their assumptions and propositions, let alone discerning the problems from the symptoms that they are supposed to deal with. Identifying the problem is never easy, more so in developing the viable solution. If we really want to solve a problem, asking the right question is the foremost and essential step.
The creative format of Fight Night does hammer into the audience the urge to scratch our head over something that we might have taken for granted for too long. On the political front, it raises a number of meaningful but difficult questions such as what voting really means, its relationship with individuality versus collectivism, free will and freedom, majority versus minority, the politics of representation and so on, you name it. In view of the current political climate in Hong Kong, the audience was challenged to ponder the key elements of democracy, such as candidacy (who can run for the elections and who can't, who determines the qualifications, how the nomination and screening works etc.), the vote (what it means, what it can do and what not) and the voting system.
I found the choice of five candidates on the stage, two women and three men, most interesting and thought-provoking. Apparently they were chosen by the production team and the audience had no idea whatsoever as why and how they became eligible to stand up for themselves. But the audience was asked to vote for their favourite candidate before anything but the names were introduced. How much do we care to know about the candidates before we cast our vote? How do we verify that the information on all those campaigning materials is truthful and trustworthy? Why should I vote for this one and not that one? What can and should we do to ensure the best qualified candidates are eligible? What do we mean by "the best"? How qualified are we to determine the standards to assess candidacy? These were the first questions I asked myself before I cast my vote for one of the female candidates.
In the middle of the performance, the host, played by the director and playwright himself, tried to interrupt and seized candidacy, but he was eventually ousted. Then the three remaining candidates took over the stage and ran the rest of the performance on their own, while at the same time competed among themselves to be the ultimate winner. For those who are increasingly frustrated and impatient with the political gridlock in this Asia's world city, the metaphoric references and inspirations could be colossal.
On the theatre side, it also inspires the audience to rethink what constitutes a theatrical performance, how far the interactive elements can take off in such performances, and how many more possibilities the theatre setting can offer. How much the audience are willing to be involved in the performance without knowing in the first place? What sort of stage-audience relationship would emerge from such kind of engagement? How the audience's involvement should be evaluated with regard to the overall effectiveness and quality of the performance? These are some of the interesting but unanswered questions that popped up my mind as I walked slowly out of the theatre.
Strictly speaking, Fight Night may not be classified as drama but some sort of live performance with active participation of the audience. There is a specific setting, but not a full-fledged storyline per se. Rather, it is more a process than a story. The audience are fully engaged throughout the process via the voting devices, a very contemporary way of breaking the fourth wall of the stage, if I may, but whether their actions bring any change at each skilfully designed turning point remains unknown. The metaphoric significance can hardly be underestimated. Breaking the barriers on and off the stage with a voting device is incredibly clever, and particularly effective against the political backdrop of Hong Kong. Although it sounds somewhat too much to ask for, I do look forward to another eye- and mind-opening surprise at the theatre in many more years to come.