I cannot untangle my ambivalent responses to the work of performance collective Shunt, whose second piece staged in the labyrinth of arches beneath London Bridge railway station this is.
They work like Trojans to interrogate and dismantle the conventional demarcation of performers presenting work to a seated, immobile, passive audience. This piece begins with the audience milling awkwardly around a supposed swingers' party; after some scenes in blackout, we are split into separate groups and taken to see quite independent scenes, before being reunited in a traverse arrangement where we watch not just what is happening onstage, but also the opposite bank of spectators. And yet the company does still rely on their audience being essentially docile, participating (individually or as a whole) only to the extent and in the places necessary. It seems a bit bogus.
Shunt are clearly brimful of ideas, but seldom seem when putting a show together to settle in advance on what it is they want to say. A piece's meaning need not be neatly trimmed and tied up with pink ribbons, but conversely I also believe that any inclination towards the cop-out of "It means whatever you want it to mean" should be subject to swingeing on-the-spot fines. Amato Saltone is apparently inspired by the "father of noir" Cornell Woolrich; apart from recurring motifs of sailors and whores in the latter, more conventionally presented part of the show, though, what struck me most often was a deliberate disjunction between noirish words and images of modern urban atomisation, and that's about as far as any significance appeared to go.
And it sounds exciting that a show can evolve to the point where what is performed now is all but unrecognisable from the version which began previewing in mid-October, but there is also a commercial aspect to consider. Having postponed the official press night since November (14 weeks of previews – surely this is a London record!), they have nevertheless been performing work in the interim which they knew they were not satisfied with, and charging spectators £20 a head for the privilege of seeing them weed flawed notions out. Every audacious success is balanced by a so-what letdown, every glorious bit of cheek sits atop a brass neck. A number of voices have proclaimed Shunt's approach to be one of the futures of theatre. I hope not. Something very close, but not quite this.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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