Originally written for Exeunt.
Shunt have always nurtured an unusual and striking relationship with space. From the theatre company’s initial base in Bethnal Green Arches to their residency in the vaults under London Bridge Station, the site of performance has been integral to their work.
There is something deeply appropriate, then, about the title of Shunt’s new piece. The Architects, a disorientating riff on the Minotaur myth, is the first of their shows to be staged in a space that is not their own, but its name immediately conjures the role that the company have previously taken in constructing the environments in which audiences experience their work. Shunt embrace theatre as event, building entire worlds into which spectators are “immersed” – a term that has since become a fashionable and problematic tag for the kind of work that the company have always been interested in producing.
Central to these precisely assembled fictional worlds is the element of surprise, which makes writing about Shunt’s work a delicate activity. Perched at the edge of their rehearsal room in Marylebone, I feel a slight illicit thrill at peeking inside a process cloaked with secrecy, an outsider flicking through the embryonic blueprints. Later, speaking to company member David Rosenberg during the rehearsal lunch break, it is made clear that the less I reveal about the show the better. The journey that audiences are guided on by Shunt hinges on the unexpected and on knowing as little as possible prior to the event.
“We’re always looking for ways in our work to bring people very much into the moment of where they are in a performance,” says Rosenberg, reaching for adequate words to describe this element of the work. Shunt want audiences fully inside their pieces, fighting the conditioned impulse to be constantly drawing cerebral connections between the performance and the world outside, and encouraging audience members to feel “something that isn’t part of the suspension of disbelief”.
This displacement of the usual relationship between audience and performance relies heavily on moments of surprise and disorientation, moments that shift the atmosphere of the piece and create something from the resulting discomfort. “Points of surprise are points where you begin to imagine that you know the architecture of the space or understand the logic of the space and then that logic changes,” Rosenberg explains. “In that brief period when you’re trying to adjust, that’s a very exciting state to be experiencing a show in.”
For all the care taken over the audience experience, however, there is an intriguing tension in Shunt’s work between a level of freedom not normally enjoyed by audiences and the very orchestrated nature of the experiences they craft. Shattering the usual rhetoric that surrounds this type of work, Rosenberg freely admits that “the audience don’t actually have a lot of choice in our shows”, going on to describe audience members as being “imprisoned” in the worlds that the company create. At the same time, however, he is intent on giving audiences as little instruction as possible, insisting during rehearsals that the performers should not be telling the audience what to do, but instead the shape of the piece should guide their behaviour and interaction. In this way, paradoxically, the more controlled the environment, the freer the audience feel.
This tension between agency and entrapment is likely to also be key to The Architects. Writing about Shunt’s new piece without dropping several clunking spoilers is a problematic task, so my conversation with Rosenberg – at least outside the rehearsal room – remains largely in the realm of the vague. As loudly announced by the bull emblazoned on their marketing material, the show’s basis in the Minotaur myth, a myth that Rosenberg tells me they have been interested in exploring for several years, is no secret. Unsurprisingly, it was the room for interpretation that appealed to the company. “We were interested in taking as a starting point a very short and well known story,” says Rosenberg. “Whatever account you read is barely more than a page, so there are a limited number of elements within it; we could extrapolate a lot from something very simple.”
I wonder whether the unique nature of the myth as a mode of storytelling and its role in the formation and communication of cultures and ideas is significant to Shunt’s appropriation of this form. As acknowledged by Rosenberg, this inspirational springboard marks a departure from the historical starting points of most of the company’s previous work and is thus being utilised and interpreted in a different way. “The fact that this is a myth brings in interesting ideas about the creation of myths and how they can continue to be useful in contemporary narratives.”
Rosenberg’s mention of the contemporary brings us onto the real world resonance that Shunt’s work attempts to achieve even within its sealed-off theatrical worlds. Despite engaging with historical or fictional narratives, the company’s shows are typically informed by the social and political climate of both their conception and their subsequent development throughout performance. Money, performed in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, refracted the financial crisis of that specific moment through a tale of past financial failure; the inspiration of the gunpowder plot was married with the anxieties of a post-9/11 world in Dance Bear Dance.
“There is an idea for a show and then there is the current climate in which that show is being made,” Rosenberg makes the distinction. “There are events unfolding throughout the whole time we’ll be making a show, so we try to be a bit permeable to those events.” As for the current significance of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, Rosenberg is more elusive, but it is clear that the piece is heavily coloured by the present moment, with the company hinting at metaphorical links between the audience’s experience and the wider political and economic landscape.
Equipped with only partial information, the glimpse I witness of the rehearsal room is often as disorientating as the finished experience is engineered to be, but one thing I do get a clear sense of is Shunt’s collective method of working. One performer leads an improvisation, to be replaced the next moment by someone else; any hierarchy that might briefly emerge is fluid and ever-shifting. Likewise, while individuals inevitably take on different roles within the company, everything is conceived and credited collectively. As Rosenberg puts it, “when we make the work we aren’t fulfilling the vision of one person. We are all the authors of that work.”
This notion of collective authorship steers the conversation into ideas of legacy. With no sole author, how can a textual trace of the work remain? This question of documentation is one that intrigues Rosenberg, but one that he admits the company have not been particularly good at addressing. Despite the existence of a Shunt archive, the collective are unsure how these documents might translate into a record of the shows they create.
“It’s very difficult to document an audience experience, and that’s the point of the work,” Rosenberg pins down the central problem. “What lingers around afterwards is a mess of different images and snippets of things.” Precisely because of their idiosyncratic melding of history, fiction and the present moment, together with the particular combination of artists who make their work possible, Shunt’s shows exist very much in the moment of their performance. As such, any form of documentation must recognise this.
“The archive could become something that exists in its own right,” Rosenberg muses, “something that isn’t just about a record.” This too, perhaps, could become a new space, an area carved out by Shunt to offer their audiences yet another way of experiencing their work. As Rosenberg speaks about the possibility of touring next year, a departure from previous ways of working that once again shifts the company’s relationship with the space of performance, Shunt leave the impression that they are still far from finished with manipulating the architecture of theatre.
Photo: Susanne Dietz