Warehouse at 42-44 Bermondsey Street London SE1
The Shunt Collective's latest work was first seen last year and is now open for a second season. It takes place inside a large warehouse that used to house tobacco and stands next to the railway a brisk 5 minutes walk from London Bridge Station and Shunt vaults. Here they have built a free-standing three-storey structure that looks like a large industrial building.
From it emerge the sounds of heavy machinery, the pounding of huge pumps. Occasional figures appear upon its metal stairs and walkways: leather-clad, helmeted figures that could be intergalactic policemen or just motorbike messengers, a man in a towelling bath robe, a blow-up rubber sex doll, a figure like a half-unwrapped mummy, a business-like looking woman. On television screens on nearby walls there is a woman who appears to be reading the news, but there is no sound and text bands scurry across the bottom of the screen too fast to read them. Now she is eating sandwiches - presumably off-air. Leather clad figures begin to carry things past her to the room behind. Studio lights start going wrong.
It is not only on the television sets that there is malfunction. Suddenly all the lights go out and the machinery judders to a halt. Then everything comes on again, eventually the fifty or so audience who have been waiting and watching are beckoned up the stairs and into the building and find themselves in a room where numbers are clicking up on screens. From here on they become both spectators and participants for as they are directed through a succession of environments - waiting room, council chamber, company reception - they also look up or down through glass floors to events taking place in a domestic interior and a sauna as well as in the spaces that they have visited themselves.
Awareness of the machinery comes and goes; sometimes you are again plunged into darkness. At times you never feel quite sure whether the walls will crash down around you or the floor collapse beneath your feet and you may have to work hard to make sense of the situation of which you have become a part.
In 1882 the clerically backed Union Générale bank collapsed sparking off a financial panic in France. This was the inspiration for Emile Zola's novel L'Argent and that in turn is the inspiration for this production - but it is not a direct retelling of it and knowing the book won't necessarily help you make more sense of this experience. There is a succession to the events which the audience experience but this is not straightforward narrative theatre. Quite what is happening in the sauna or around the Jewish family table remains mysterious - or if you can't leave it at that, let's say open to interpretation. What is certain is that a man comes up with an idea or an invention that is taken up and takes off, ever growing in success.
Investment seems secure, self-gratification is offered as the bait - it is the biological principle on which procreation flourishes and life continues but man no longer has to go on evolving, he can change the world instead of changing himself to match new conditions. But despite the speeches and champagne lights always seem to be fusing; something has gone wrong with the roads reaching our into the desert, doorknobs are removed to stop you leaving and the unwrapped mummy figure keeps appearing now more like a new creature made by Dr Frankenstein that looks damaged or gone wrong.
Ranged on facing benches like MPs in the debating chamber the audience get the opportunity to support a variety of issues from free parking (cheers from those I was with) to Karl Marx (boos), the insincerity of financiers and politicians is satirised but there is no debate. Things go wrong but no one points a finger at why. If we have been inside the great capitalist machine - if that indeed is the maker's meaning - it has been for a sometimes unnerving sensory experience rather than to encounter any cogent political argument.
Continues until 27th March 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton