Review of The Architects by Diana Damian and I – for Exeunt
Stewart Pringle: Shunt have welcomed us aboard their ship of fools, and it’s sinking into a whirlpool of Spenglerian untergang. The Architects has its elusive moments, but one thing remains clear, we’re going down. A parable of decline that washes back and forth from the European banking crisis to Daedelus’s one-stop-you’re-fucked-shop, overseen by a torpid pantheon of TOWIE gods, it’s messy and scattershot, but also a thrillingly meaty proposition that demands imagination and deserves commitment. It’s not the entertaining, free-roaming adventure that it might appear, it’s not always much fun at all, but it’s thought-provoking, intelligent and has a fiery rage in its belly.
From a MDF labyrinth of view-screens and stuttering neon, we enter the ballroom of a cruise liner, a monochrome lounge with undertones of the Korova milk-bar. There’s a pop-punk band that sound like they’re warming up for Weezer, peanuts and a lecture on the power of living architecture. Then our voyage begins, and the liner’s disintegration is delivered in absurd and often hilarious scene-lets as the power phases in and out. A peculiar Dutch family hops tensely through the crowd, delivering announcements and apologies in Hi-Di-Hi fashion. Their children are here too, planting kisses on the audience’s cheeks and skipping about merrily.
We’re being watched by The Architects themselves, fourShameless-esque parodies of vulgarity further vulgarised by wealth. There’s more than a whiff of the National Lottery about them, something disconcertingly classist too, but as they drift into debauchery they feel strangely well-suited to the role of sloppy emperors of excess. Our lords and masters are the inheritors of the decline of Rome, and The Architects plays out like a Petronian anecdote, a comic metaphor for the endtimes of a civilisation.
The problems on the ship are played for laughs, but they allude to the disintegration of all social systems. Someone’s taken a shit on the viewing platform, there’s a talkative queue outside a nymphomaniac’s cabin, things are going missing, things are getting lost and broken. The four ruling libertines hint at Salò too – P&O Pasolini, if you will – with their linking of moral and physical degradation, their smiling sadism and flatulent sexuality. There’s nothing as direct as a jibe at Osbourne or Cameron, but the message is reasonably clear, the world is falling apart in spite or even because of the impotent debauchery of our ruling classes.
Diana Damian: There’s a bull in the centre of this monochrome Goyan bar, this underdeck of Poseidon’s ship. It’s a pit, of sorts, a gargantuan, utopic no man’s land turned to hell. We’ve wandered in here, a group of unlikely voyagers keen for adventure. The band are playing to the sound of this erosion.
Stewart Pringle: The myth of the Minotaur is woven into the piece on a number of levels. On the most obvious it’s a grisly example of vanity in the heavens creating carnage for the lower classes, as Minos’ fracas with Poseidon begets a monster that devours the young and the innocent. The bathos of the beast’s appearance here, which looks like a sort of Sailor Moon-itaur, suggests that the true threat is never really the monster, it’s the man who builds the labyrinth and tosses you inside it.
Diana Damian: I agree Stewart, The Architects takes mythology and flirts with its inherent eroticism, its allegories of wealth and power. It turns myth inside out to create a dense, and often satirical existential portrait, though one permeated with a suitably gulping uncertainty. I’d say that its use of mythology is what makes the production so solid, so full of muscle. It digs you in, and you have to dig your way out: the satisfaction isn’t immediate and this makes for a show full of interesting echoes. It incorporates an impressive set of discourses within its fragmented structure. It transposes its formal interests into thematic ones, and weaves the two together tightly. The labyrinth is appropriated in such a way that it’s the concepts you find yourself chasing throughout the show, not the Minotaur nor the children attempting to stay away from the wreck.
After his ascension to the throne, Minos is said to have prayed to Poseidon for a white bull to be sacrificed in the gods’ honour. But he found it too beautiful, and sacrificed one of his own. In punishment, his wife was cursed to fall in love with the Cretan bull from the sea, Daedalus’ hollowed out cow in which she climbed inside to mate with the white bull. The Minotaur, the man-beast child, was thus hidden away in Knossos; a creature forever wandering his vast labyrinth. We get to encounter all these creatures here; there’s a hollowed-out beast at the centre of this maze, ready for us all to have a go, waiting for us in the ship whose sinking we’ve caused. This is Baudrillard’s desert of the real only with lots of jokes and a brilliant speech about the power of architecture. We watch as Minos and his family stare back at us, throwing their curse into the sea, and gleefully sinking with it.
In its engagement with philosophies of space, with the associative power of mythological narrative and the embodied desire to recapture agency within these tropes, Shunt open up an intriguing and dense territory for a form of theatricality that usually stays well clear of these discourses.
Stewart Pringle: In many ways The Architects is the natural extension of the themes Shunt explored in Money. Where the earlier show used Zola’s condemnation of greed and financial speculation as the spark for some abstruse but beautiful riffing on the power of the money markets, The Architects scope is wider, but its targets are essentially the same. The corruption of the ruling classes, and the insidious but absolute destructive power they wield are Shunt’s new refrains. It’s this fierce political indignation that sets the collective apart from many of its cousins in the upper echelons of UK theatrical experimentation.
It’s also what saves their work from collapsing into a frustrating muddle, because The Architects, like Money but perhaps to an even greater extent, is deeply flawed. Until the closing moments there’s precious little theatrical wonder, a meagre helping of spectacle considering the size of the venue they’ve overtaken, and basketfuls of loose and incomplete concepts. Shunt invite you to pick a thread and follow it through their makeshift maze, but pick the wrong one and you’re liable to come face first into a dead end. There’s also a sense that the piece isn’t complete yet, that you’re catching it mid-devise. Occasional technical problems such as the kick-drum overpowering the rest of the band, leaving the opening number inaudible, contribute to this sense of tumult. Other problems include an attempt as disorientation that feels adolescent and half-arsed, and an approach to story-telling that could be accused of wilful obscurity.
Balance them against its successes, however, or even just against the gorgeous final tableaux (so wrong and so right that it hurts to look at it) or a stunning moment of aerial rope-work, and The Architects is an inspiring success.
Diana Damian: The Architects is steeped in politics though this is never made explicit; it’s all the more powerful fas a complex allegory. Instead of dizzying immediacy and inauthentic agency, this is a territory of a different kind: vulgar, confrontational, puerile in its eroticism, tawdry. The illusion dissolves against our wish for certainty; it lies in the resonance of this mythological journey and its condensation of time, its discourse on social systems and its charming satirical essence. Dante’s and Virgil’s Minotaur is a political hybrid, a dominating iconography of the monstrous.
There’s a distinct identity that the show gains through this engagement with the myths of an ancient civilisation, whose political tropes translate so vividly; Shunt plays with expectation, with sensation and agency; they make their ideas present and visible without hammering home the allegory. The sense of anxiety is boldly displaced, and this is what makes The Architects so fresh. All we need is a sword and a ball of thread.