October 2008: Performing NIGHT at Shunt Vaults

Tim Etchells (of Forced Entertainment) often talks about the performer as one who, through performance, is forced to confront and enact their own death on a daily basis.  I couldn’t help thinking of this when wandering around the Shunt Vaults on the first day of our rehearsal; not out of any serious mortal toiling but more out of the feeling that at some point while going through that inconspicuous door at London Bridge Station, just paces away from the vending machines and Bagel Kiosk, I had stepped into the underworld.  That maybe I died and nobody told me. 

Even during the daytime, with the work lights on, the vaults seemed endless with few definable points to mark one’s bearing.  A collapsed piano.  A mound of pinball machine carcasses.  A row of low hung light bulbs. Raked seats and raised stages scattered throughout; almost as if we were touring the distorted remains of old theatres swallowed up by the earth long time ago and only recently mined.  The uncleanable floors and the sweet tasting dust that hung in the air.  Fungal stalactites in the shadows and an after-smell of mould clinging onto the tail of sawdust during the day or onto the cologne of the city-boys at night (reminding me of death again).  The city tries to press its way down from above, testing arches and keystones.  And from all other directions the earth is being held back by thin layers of paint, scraps of wallpaper, ever-changing false walls and strategically lain pools of light (electric and candle) defining, holding open, cavern, cranny and nook.  Leaving just enough space for the in-between. A modern day Vesuvius in the heart of London, only without the ash blown corpses (but then again that’s maybe what we were there for).

Needless to say this was an almost too perfect place to debut a piece entitled NIGHT.   We staked our claim in the Shunt “Arena” with curtain and spotlight.  A “news-stand” shone in the downlight and from this pulpit our vaudevillian explorer / barker taunted and tantalized the audience’s curiosity before ushering them in from the relative safety of the dim and on into the dark where our wounded “creature” laid in wait for repair.  The audience would watch the “creature’s” process of recovery, the intimacy of the venue drawing them in to every subtle move and gesture as they tried to assemble the circumstances of this thing’s captivity and the definition of cruelties (if any) laid upon it.  Until abruptly being informed by our showman that they’ve “seen enough” and “have to leave”.  Fin.

The variety of other work/stimulus within the vaults really added a certain casual (though at times a bit too background noise intensive) quality to the piece.  To be taken into this experience in a “traditional” performance venue would be quite special, but, as a performer/audience member, to slip from the bar into this world of creatures and carnival sideshows and flow back into the circulation of the main space or that of other performances gives an added dreamlike quality to the piece itself and perhaps that best describes the beauty of the entire Shunt experience. It’s an evening of only beginnings. Each collected experience (performance, music, painting) within the vaults bleeds into another and across the evening in general (over the tins of Red Stripe at the bar, through the unisex toilets, over the Star Wars Pinball machine).  Eventually to a point where one begins to ask oneself “when did this actually begin?”  When did I enter this place… the underworld?

- Sean Bruno


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