The Architects

V22 The Biscuit Factory

The Architects

The last Shunt show I saw was Money, their immersive piece inspired by Emile Zola’s novel L’Argent which itself was inspired by the collapse of the French bank Union Genéral in 1882. This offered an amazing environment and some surprising visual and sensory experiences if no clear narrative a questioning of economic ethics. What would this innovative company they come up with this time?

The Architects “is inspired by the labyrinth and the horror it contains” says its publicity. “In the custard halls of the biscuit factory in Bermondsey, the walls are smeared with history—the history of mass producing biscuits. Shunt have taken the extraordinary liberty to extend this history to ancient Greece.”

That seemed to promise something linked to Daedalus, legendary architect of the Cretan labyrinth, and it is indeed a labyrinth that begins the evening, a plywood maze of almost empty rooms. I gather than on press night they were darkly lit. Despite a suggestion that one arrive well before 8pm starting time, a breakdown on the underground meant that I arrived out of breath a minute or two after. By then, they were empty and well lit and not too difficult to negotiate. Perhaps in a press of people it may have been more challenging.

Eventually I emerged into what seemed like the large saloon of a liner packed with people. Large porthole-like windows along one side had water lapping half way up them; we must be well down in the body of the ship. There was a bar, a dais for a band and lots of chairs and tables crowded with people. Many wore heavy coats, some in woolly hats with backpacks. It seemed as though a horde of refugees from some disaster had been herded here in an unwelcoming gloom. That was just the audience.

I found what must have been the last vacant chair on a raised level to one side and saw below me, among the tables, a white bull. Was this the animal of the god Poseidon’s that appeared on Cretan shores? I waited to find out.

And waited, getting colder despite a good thick jersey and a leather jacket.

The band introduced themselves and played. Some fifteen minutes later a tall lady in bright pink began to move through the crows. She was very heavily pregnant. Could this be Pasiphae, King Minos’ queen, who became enamoured of that white bull? If so we were starting well into the story.

She raised the animal’s tail and reaching into its rectum withdrew a pair of glittering high heeled shoes. Ah, not the bull then but the cow that Daedalus constructed for her to climb inside to facilitate her copulation with the bull. The link was made but, for now at least, that was as far as that story proceeded.

A group of others now moved through the saloon. They announced themselves as the Biscotts, a Danish family of architects, the builders of this “six star ocean palace” which is not so much a liner as a condominium, though it seems to be offering the amusements, excursions and entertainments of a cruise ship.

After a rambling lecture about architectural ethics in heavily accented English, there is a succession of passenger announcements. They begin with a welcome to this maiden voyage into the Mediterranean. There is an invitation to play with dolphins and, for those requiring a greater intimacy there is a dolphin equivalent of Pasiphae’s artificial cow.

Soon, however the announcements are not about competition winners but increasingly apologies for things doing wrong. Sudden blackouts emphasise the breakdown as well as marking time passing and eventually the order is given to abandon ship and men and women are separated.

Another dark labyrinth leads to the next episodes. Perhaps they are intended to be frightening but the male group I was with at first saw their funny side, then after a display of circus skills (on long red lisse cords that may have referred to Ariadne’s thread) a display of gratuitous violence and a distantly observed episode which featured Pasiphae and the cow-case again and what looked like a large, naked man, the chilled and clearly bored audience found a way to move back into the saloon.

The cold had had a common effect on most of us: we took the opportunity to find the loos. A long trek through in a dark warehouse following a line of red light was now the most theatrical experience of the evening. Leaving a long queue still waiting I tried to make my way back into the show. Instead I found everyone was leaving—it seems there was no more—except an easy exit back through the labyrinth with red thread to mark an easy route.

Quite what Shunt is up to this time I won’t attempt to hazard. There was one reference to this being a ship of fools as we were about to disembark. Perhaps that is significant. The logistics have taken effort and planning but the ideas seem only half worked out and most of it is frankly boring, not the theatrical stimulus I was expecting. I would certainly defend everyone’s occasional right to fail but this seems to me a failure to develop a concept rather than a failure of execution.

Perhaps this should have been a summer show. If we had not been so cold and gloomy but felt comfortably opulent on a luxury liner it might have had a different impact. Maybe our minds were just too frozen to follow their quirky logic. Other audiences may gain more from it and perhaps the company will develop and refine it further.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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