Sunday, March 28, 2010

The new play Shunt Money from the folks at Shunt - taking place in a huge tobacco warehouse (apparently once owned by Fidel Castro) down the road from their normal premises in the cavernous, catacomb-like railway arches underneath London Bridge station – is certainly visually spectacular in a way that can rival even interactive performance collective Punchdrunk’s mindblowing theatre productions (which GoodnightLondon has covered elsewhere on this blog).
Without wanting to give too much away, let’s just say that inside the panopticon-like warehouse, you feel like you are on the set of Brazil or an updated version of 1984, with dry ice in the darkness and ludicrously dressed riot police (unsurprisingly played by actors/volunteers rather than real police – or at least I’m assuming so) guarding a bronze, huge three-storey Victorian-looking metallic engine structure, replete with steam pulleys, pistons, levers, engines, and dials, resembling something that you might find in an underwater submarine in World War II, or from the set of Metropolis. Towering in the centre of the warehouse and belching out smoke like some being that’s alive, it’s certainly a site to behold, and is even more spectacular when you are trapped in it’s belly inside, with it’s transparent flooring revealing chambers, rooms and saunas below and above, while a bald figure all in white resembling Caliban in Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books descends from ceilings, scurries spider-like through the rooms below and around the opaque roof, and does somersaults around the audience at intervals. Who is the voyeur, the audience or the actors? It’s difficult to tell who is really spying on who, just as the seamless visuals can’t quite hide the handling of the story, which bases itself around Émile Zola’s L’Argent – a novel in the late 1800s prophetically inspired by the collapse of the French bank Union Generale, who went under as a consequence of dire financial management, greed, speculation and over-investment. The relevance is obvious when placed within the context of the current financial crisis (particularly the collapse of Lehman Brothers) and the mismanagement that has took place on Wall Street and the Square Mile, yet the dialogue was so cryptic and obfuscated and the script so impenetrable that it became difficult to really know what was going on half of the time when observing the interaction of the characters as they span their baseless pyramid schemes to each other. Perhaps this impenetrability was deliberate, intended to approximate or signify the Byzantine nature of the doomed dealings and wheelings – grounded, as it turned out, on nothing - that was being depicted, just as we now know that much of the financial dealings of business moguls in the real world was based on an illusion.
Regardless, Punchdrunk’s performance of Faust as a contrast somehow made complete sense even if you weren’t following the story closely, simply because the set design and themes explored in each room captured the story so perfectly and expertly. Still, like watching cities being engulfed by tidal waves and storms in The Day After Tomorrow while ignoring the schmaltzy Hollywood character plotting, the visuals alone made it worthwhile. After attending this and the Punchdrunk performances of Faust and The Masque of the Red Death, it seems obvious where the next location for an interactive theatre performance of this kind should be: Battersea Power Station, a venue that would truly make for an incredible backdrop (which is did, tantalisingly, in Children of Men, and which has at least hosted a couple of exhibitions). Yet, with depressing inevitability, the status of that stunning monument, just as with the handling of the banking system by those responsible that led to the current financial meltdown, remains mired in staggering mismanagement and negligence. Even if Shunt Money’s script was flawed at times, its central message has never been at a more prescient time.

Shunt Money image: © Shunt Money website/Christopher Sims.
Battersea Power Station photo: © Saatchi Gallery website/2006 Parkview International

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