Agency or Entrapment? Audience Interaction & Shunt’s The Architects

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In Shunt’s labyrinthine new show, the visible maze is just a warm-up. After navigating our way through a bewildering mass of MDF corridors, all chillingly kitted out with surveillance cameras and television monitors, we emerge into what appears to be the monochrome belly of a luxury cruise liner, where we obediently sit at tables and chairs while our bumbling Danish (0r are they?) guides jolt us through a disorientating litany of escalating crises. The heating is broken, someone’s taken a shit by the barbecue and a beast appears to be on the loose, as all the while the band plays frantically on. This ship is going down and there’s nothing we can do about it. But despite this sense of immobile powerlessness, this feeling that we are at the mercy of our none too trustworthy hosts, there is an atmosphere of consent. As one character acknowledges, “we’re all adults here”.

Meatier than it appears at first glance, there’s plenty to dissect in The Architects: the mutation of the central Minotaur myth, the structures and exercising of power, the very nature of spectacle. But as a spectator of Shunt’s latest offering, it was this positioning of the audience that I found myself repeatedly returning to – no doubt coloured by the preoccupations that I brought into the space. When speaking to company member David Rosenberg for Exeunt a few weeks ago, one frank admission of his intrigued me: “the audience don’t actually have a lot of choice in our shows”. He went on to describe spectators as being “imprisoned” within the world of Shunt’s creation, be it a conference, a tennis pitch or, in the case of The Architects, the cruise of a lifetime. We have little to no real agency and the company are not shy of acknowledging that fact.

This way of speaking about the work startled me because it was so divorced from the rhetoric surrounding the majority of theatre that falls within the broad brackets of “immersive” and “interactive” (two slippery, problematic and not necessarily interchangeable terms). This kind of work usually invokes a discourse of action, empowerment and choice; audiences are granted freedom, the accompanying material typically states, given a space in which to play and explore. Though, as one of my fellow MA students pointed out in a recent seminar discussing spectatorship and audiences, having to be told that you are free is something of a paradox. Surely audiences already are active and empowered – a starting assumption much like that suggested by Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator – and do not need to be granted agency.

Far from the patronising provision of a freedom that should not need to be “allowed”, the knowingly problematic role in which Shunt casts its spectators, particularly in The Architects, presents a far more fascinating, knotty proposition. Within the scenario created by Shunt, there are three hierarchical levels of power: the leering, TOWIE-esque overlords at the top, appearing as a distant video-projected presence that conjures and collides the fickle gods of myth and the grotesquely guzzling modern day elite; our slyly manoeuvring but essentially powerless hosts, positioned as an opportunistic political go-between; and us, the audience, on the bottom rung. Not for the first time, a ship comes to represent a nation, and our role within that sinking nation is all too clear. Seen as part of this rigidly structured and depressingly resonant power dynamic, the imposed powerlessness of spectators is integral to the theatrical metaphor.

While Shunt can to an extent trade on the desirably experiential nature of their performance events, which now inevitably have a currency born from reputation, their very calculated and inherently problematised form of audience restriction seems to present a contrast with the kind of falsely empowering interaction discussed in a recent essay on Culturebot. Discussing the work of Punchdrunk, whose brand of immersive theatre has now become a lucratively sought-after commodity, Agnès Silvestre analyses the hypocritical illusion of agency that the work cultivates, painting its model of spectatorship as one designed to maximise profit rather than to test the boundaries between performance and audience.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that many people find Punchdrunk’s shows an exhilarating experience, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with that in itself. What grates is the promise of freedom in which it is framed, with marketing material that speaks of “roaming audiences” who are free to explore. Audience members might be encouraged to move around more than in “traditional” theatre settings, but as Silvestre points out, they are only “free” so long as they play within Punchdrunk’s set of rules. Those who transgress are silenced or removed.

The Architects also has unspoken rules of engagement, ones subtly laid out by the structure of the piece from the off and obediently adhered to by the spectators around me. But this restrictive framework is engaged in an implicit dialogue with the piece itself, a dialogue that asks us to look at these power relationships from a critical perspective. As already identified, there is inherent consent, making us complicit in our own inactivity. Just as the cruise promises us the opportunity, should we so wish, for a romantic encounter with a dolphin (or other beast of our choice) on the basis that we are consenting adults, we have chosen to be here and it is our choice to get meekly tugged along by this spiralling disaster. And not just to passively endure it, but to actively enjoy the hilarity of the destruction that steadily engulfs us.

After playing along with this power game, the final big reveal – that element of surprise or unveiling that all Shunt fans are eagerly waiting for – has a tinge of disappointment. The concluding image, framed within a raised box, is painful to watch yet loudly demanding of our attention, cultivating the same kind of morbid fascination that compels passersby to crane their necks to look at car crashes. It is repulsive yet disappointing because it simply shows to us what was there all along and what we as good theatrical citizens decided to happily accept. The big reveal is not really a big reveal at all, in that it turns the mirror on something we already half knew about our place within this constructed scenario and within the wider world to which it metaphorically refers.

It’s all there in the name: Shunt build the accepted architectures of power and sculpt our place within those. The realisation, and perhaps from that the resistance, are down to us.

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