The Architects: Shunt at the Factory
I am usually both enticed by and skeptical about anything described as ‘immersive’ which is why I was intrigued to attend the performance of The Architects at the National Theatre’s satellite venue, the Biscuit Factory, near Bermondsey here in London. This show is put on by the London collective of live performers called Shunt who often mount their programs in non-traditional spaces. I discovered them through a tutor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, who introduced them as the originators of “huge, immersive, and strange productions that almost always happen in large cold warehouses”.
Based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The House of Asterion which takes the form of a monologue delivered by Asterion in which he addresses accusations of misanthropy and madness and also describes his house and its many corridors, pools and courtyards and compares it to the entire universe. This similarly all-encompassing experience begins with the premise of a decadent, no-holds-barred boat cruise where no taboo is off limits. As both audience and ‘customer’ you are treated to a ballroom setting in which you sit – and from there the performance descends a cryptic kind of chaos, that is Brechtian at best, and sensory fun house at worst. At first all is well, with live music and spoken word performances. Gradually the entertainment program and the ship itself begin to unravel, with reports of ‘incidents’ being piped in via large video screens on the ballroom set. Eventually the ship has to be evacuated and the story takes a turn that is both an elegant and nightmarish, literally moving the audience through two other settings before the story is over.
Speaking as a seasoned veteran of both creating and experiencing immersive environments, I can say that Shunt has a noticeable command of space and the way it creates a narrative impact (even going to the bathroom plays with ones preconceptions about what kind of space may await behind the door). From start to finish the The Architects is any David Lynch fans version of a theme park experience. Upon entering one is confronted with a labyrinth of uniform fresh veneer skinned corridors (a definite nod to the Borges story). And for me, the experience of walking through the corridors was nothing short of physically walking into a Lynch film. After finally finding the main performance space, the ship’s ballroom (complete with a bar), the experience begins to feel truly immersive, the lights go off, and on, and off, and the story sets sail. The audience participates fully in the performance, most often as just part of the dialogue, so it never feels forced, and you do feel totally engrossed in the story at all times.
Needless to say, on a sensory level, The Architects hits a home run. As theatre, the outcome is not so easy to praise. Although the performance is an elegant fusion of straight-up theatre and audience participation, the cruise ship story goes off course and ends with a scene that I can only describe as a semi-nude, David LaChapelle style photo shoot with an incoherent collection of signs and signifiers attempting to connect back to both the Borges story and the deeper Theseus and the Minotaur myth. However, I would still highly recommend this play or rather “event” to anyone in the area, especially if you are a fan of noir themes and rambling speeches about architecture.
Konstantinos Mavromichalis is director of design at Urban Visuals, a Toronto-based lighting and media company specializing in responsive environments for architecture and interiors. He is currently in the Adaptive Architecture and Computation program at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London.