42-44 Bermondsey Street, London SE1

Opened 30 September, 2009


When I mention my job, people often respond with surprise that the Financial Times covers the arts. But in many ways theatre and market speculation alike are about creating plausibility. Astute theatre-makers can bring this link to vibrant life: there’s Enron, for instance, about to transfer from the Royal Court to the West End with its exuberant account of the multi-billion-dollar corporate implosion. And now this immersive piece, the first major new work from performance collective Shunt in three years, a free adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1891 novel L’Argent which was in turn inspired by the 1882 collapse of the Union Générale bank.
I have not got on particularly with Shunt’s previous productions, but I realise now that their approach to immersive work is more essentially theatrical than, say, that of the currently lionised Punchdrunk company. Each outfit creates staggeringly complex and detailed environments amid which the audience moves, but Shunt take more care to build the experience around a substantial kernel of drama: in this case, the rise and rise... and fall... of Aristide Saccard’s financial project. From one angle this project is never specified; from another, it concerns the vast, three-storey environment-cum-machine constructed in the middle of this warehouse space, through which we are shepherded; from still a third, the metaphor is reversed and the machine becomes a symbol for both capitalism and civilisation itself.
We piece this together from oblique hints as we progress from a corporate anteroom to a champagne bar, peer down through glass floors/ceilings into the Jewish financier Gundermann’s household and a sauna, and at one point engage seemingly spontaneously in a playful battle with, not to put too fine a point on it, a load of balls. (Shunt work usually includes an element of self-parody.) There is perhaps an over-reliance, common to much work in this genre, on darkness and noise to create an evocative atmosphere, but these are discrete moments here in a more or less linear, more or less discernible narrative. Yet it feels as if we are not only witnessing the tale but inhabiting it, and inhabiting not only the tale but also its deeper thematic concerns. Mostly. After the performance I found myself chatting to a broker for J.P. Morgan: his principal response was that he wanted to buy the space.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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