Performance collective Shunt have acquired a reputation for brilliantly imaginative, often site-specific work. This is their first presentation in their new semi-permanent home, a vast labyrinth of vaults and arches beneath London Bridge railway station. They’ve also been adopted by the National Theatre – tickets are booked through the NT – and Friday’s press night audience was packed with “faces”.
It begins as great fun, even though they’re playing with claustrophobia. We enter, a batch at a time, from right by the Tube station exit, into a small workman’s closet; then pass through a cupboard, Narnia-like, into a panelled waiting area; then are crammed into a “lift” which even judders on its imaginary journey into the depths. A great deal of meticulous care has gone into the planning and realisation.
The vaults themselves are pitch-dark, as we grope into a scruffy behavioural research lab, then take seats along the walls of a larger space to watch... Dim lights flicker on and off. Exotic dancers scuttle like startled fauna. Someone bashes a pineapple to pieces. Another lift goes “up” and “down” through the space... but it’s really travelling sideways, as if the very dimensions have been realigned.
Through this central 20-minute sequence, we catch only glimpses of what’s going on, and also of each other, ranged along opposite walls. It’s as if we’re being shown a new way of seeing things, where the bizarre and the banal can be equally intriguing. From here on, though, it gets more demonstrative, and also loses much of its allure, declining from a mystery into a possibly unsolvable puzzle.
There’s a kind of steampunk voodoo funeral sequence; the dancers dispense beers from the back of a hearse; then we take seats in a more conventional end-on space for a mock autopsy. Being Shunt, of course, there are still multimedia high-jinks and various other inexplicable quirks and quiddities. But by now you’ve realised that things won’t get any more focused, and perhaps they shouldn’t even have gone this far.
It’s very easy to get frustrated by conceptual art, especially performance art, that shies away from explanations and claiming, “It means whatever you want it to mean”. That’s just lazy. However, sometimes it’s better to leave things entirely unexplained than to make vague gestures that never cohere. Moment by moment, this is often a magnificent experience, but the more it goes on, the hollower it comes to seem.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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