Review: Fight Night, Unicorn Theatre

This timely revival of a play by provocative young Belgian company Ontroerend Goed puts the power in the audiences’ hands – quite literally. We’re given a little keypad as we enter; a host (the entertaining Angelo Tijssens) brings on five candidates. As well as being asked to anonymously press buttons to give up our own personal data – from the basics of age and gender to rather more revealing opinions on traits we admire or words we find offensive – we can use these keypads throughout the show to vote for our favourite candidate. Like I said, timely.

Not that any of them talk politics – this is political theatre where the focus is on the structure, not the ideology. We have no context: this is a game in a room, outcome-free. None of the candidates say what they’re standing for or why; instead we get personality. Are they a little bit racist? Are they religious? Are they kind or honourable, manipulative or chaotic? Eventually, in this cleverly constructed production, we are confronted with whether or not they even really believe in the system of democracy they are taking part in.

Fight Night is a thought-provoking and brisk game, which makes the audience participate in ways that – as with many of this company’s shows – occasionally has them bristle with discomfort. Our first vote for our favourite candidate must be cast before we’ve even heard them speak. Those with the lowest number of votes are regularly asked to leave the stage; shades of Big Brother or other telly game shows here, as well the forthcoming general election.

The play continually skewers the prejudices and snap judgements of the electorate, as well as candidates’ ingratiating attempts to play personality politics. Finally, it asks us to question the very nature of voting systems and democracy itself. Which is more effective – the blunt instrument of the majority vote, or to step outside the system and refuse to play along? Presumably the outcomes are a little different in each performance; lets just say, if he’d been in my audience, Russell Brand wouldn’t have been feeling too buoyed.

It’s stealthily effective – what seems enjoyable but slight at first keeps morphing to ask new questions about how we make decisions and why. Being staged at the Unicorn should help attract young audiences and provide a platform for talking about political structures, from the way our electoral systems work to how coalitions are formed to how we react to dissidents. It’s advertised for ages 14 and up, which seems fair; there were several children much younger than that in my audience, but parents would need to be happy with them hearing the words ‘cunt’, ‘faggot’ and ‘nigger’ repeatedly… like I said, Ontroerend Goed like to mess up our comfort zones.

But while Fight Night lays bare certain distinctly unappealing aspects of our democratic structures, the lack of context or consequence means the stakes are never very high. It succeeds within its own tense world, but does not map real life political situations in way that is terribly fruitful. Fun, clever, but ultimately a little too self-contained.

To 3 May;

Where next?