Edinburgh’s Mercure Hotel is sleek, anonymous and impersonal, about as erotic as a Boots sandwich. So why, as the five of us assembled in the lobby, was there a palpable sexual tension, an edgy, slightly nervous frisson as our eyes flicked from one to the other, never holding gaze? We were here, five strangers, as the audience — participants? performers? victims? — for Internal, the latest show from Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed, and it was clear from our reactions to each other that the show’s reputation had preceded it. Internal was one of the most talked-about shows in Edinburgh this summer, stirring up debates about the craft, limits and even ethics of theatre. It had also, it was rumoured, broken up a marriage. As a polite but stern assistant, clip-board in hand, led us from the lobby to a darkened, black-cloaked corridor, I heard a nervous giggle to one side of me and an apprehensive intake of breath from the another.
We were lined up in a row, shoulder to shoulder, facing a black curtain, which rose to reveal the five cast members . Young, clean-cut, attractive, they surveyed us, not unpleasantly, before taking our hands and leading us individually to five small booths, each with a table, a bottle — mine was Cointreau — with two glasses and a gentle, warmly glowing lamp. We couldn’t see into any booth except our own, or hear the other conversations in any detail, partly because of the music.
Ah yes, the music: soaring, epic string arrangements of romantic classic songs. If you ever wondered just how potent cheap music can be, this would be the moment to find out. With the low lighting, alcohol and orchestra, it was like a parody of dating. But what was being parodied, and how was the parody different to the real thing? As I poured a drink for my partner, Aurelie, who had a direct gaze, a throaty giggle and the dangerous smile of a femme fatale, the traditional definitions of performance, theatre and spectator dissolved into something far more intimate, intense — and disconcerting.
By the time that we were gathered in a circle, and the performers analysed their ‘dates’, it was clear that, however much Internal is artifice, it generates a real charge. One woman was visibly tense, even angry with her ‘partner’, while another couple were shyly affectionate, softly touching hands. There’s no doubt that the experience is emotional; the question is what is a ‘real’ emotion, and whether even unreal is quite the same as false.
Our lives are saturated with systems that play on our emotions. News reports, charities and advertising all try to win us over, using music, words and light. Our environments are mediated, designed to create an emotional charge. We’re alert to this, but still seduced by it, suspicious but complicit every step of the way. Internal plays with this and questions it, creating a startlingly intimate moment in the sterile world of the Mercure. As Internal ended and we kissed our ‘dates’ goodbye, we grinned conspiratorially at one another other as we slipped, seduced and startled, into the hop-scented rain.