Shunt group image credit: Susanne Dietz
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.”