Review: The Architects at The Biscuit Factory

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The Architects is an interactive, site-specific theatrical event created by the theatre collective Shunt, which occurs in an old Southwark biscuit factory that has been converted into a combined labyrinth and cruise ship lounge.  If that sounds disjointed and contradictory to you, you would be correct.  Oh, and there’s no heat.

You begin the performance by entering into a maze built within the factory and eventually your way into the main seating area, a lounge of sorts with small circular tables surrounded by chairs to sit in, a raised stage for musicians, and a real cash bar.  There are ‘portholes’ on the walls showing the ocean outside on screens, and a soundscape of seagulls and waves playing in the background.  A few minutes before the action starts, the band sets up and begins to play.  Then, the ‘play,’ if you can call it that, begins.

The story is told in a montage style, where scenes occur between very quick blackouts indicating the passage of time.  We learn that we are on an expensive, adult luxury cruise, with activities as diverse as a shooting range, tattoo workshop, samba classes, and the typical cruise cocktails and trivia contests.  These vignettes are often hilarious, varying levels of satirical, and unfortunately in many cases difficult to see–the table set-up means that one’s vision of some of the events is almost always obscured.

The other plot we follow in these montage scenes is a conflict between “the Architects,” the extremely wealthy and self-centered builders of the cruise ship who we only ever see on a projected video screen, and the increasingly harassed staff members of the ship, who are in fact the same actors.  This fascinating sense of doubling calls into question the identity and agenda of the Architects, leaving the motives of the ever-so-friendly cruise ship staff permanently suspect.

Unfortunately, the exploration of this tension is ultimately abandoned to follow a new source of conflict, a mysterious attacking force that leaves the staff bleeding and requires the audience to ‘evacuate the ship.’  Separated by gender into two groups, we are led into a dark space, and when it seems like any moment something is going to attack–we turn to see a beautiful scene of acrobatics enacted by two incredibly skilled performers hanging on ropes from the ceiling, and then the silent and mildly surreal defeat of the ‘beast’ that was supposedly menacing the ship by the musical band.  This action ends the performance.

Having worked in devised theatre before, it felt to me as though the beast plot was imposed on the piece late in its development in order to give the performance some sense of climax and of resolution.  Exactly how the labyrinth at the beginning related to the cruise ship at all was never really explored, and there were certain gestures remaining in the piece that only seemed to exist because they were interesting and surreal rather than relevant to the show–one actress reaching into a cow sculpture to pull her shoe out of its vulva at the start of the action, for instance.  I don’t believe that postmodern theatre must have a ‘plot’ per se, but to introduce a variety of different points of tension and then only resolve the simplest and least abstract one felt as though the company were only putting in a token effort to give their piece a narrative, ultimately selling the performance short.

There were certain aspects of The Architects that were fantastic.  The live music underscoring the entire performance, all originally composed, is engaging and very well performed; the rope acrobatics at the end are breathtaking; and the satire of the modern cruise line is spot-on and hilarious.  The seating situation does great work with the value of spectator interaction by keeping the audience in units with their friends and family and then deliberately breaking that connection during the evacuation.  It does, however, feel as though you are seeing two or three shows in one sitting, and only given an ending to one of them.  The show, if one can call it that, is certainly worth seeing, and interests and entertains throughout, but the ending cannot satisfy the fascinating and intricate situation Shunt puts you into.  Just be sure to dress warmly.

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One response to “Review: The Architects at The Biscuit Factory

  1. Harlan & Sally Johnson

    Fascinating writing from you, Natalie. Sounds like you could do some play reporting for a newspaper or magazine next summer. You want me to read some more. Grandma J

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