The story of how much I love Nigel Barrett & Louise Mari begins about thirty years ago in the quiet village about eight miles north of Cambridge where I grew up; ancient cottages and new-build estates, a crossroads, a shop, a pub, a garage. We went to Sunday school in the vicarage and played football on the recreation ground, in the woods by the railway line we shot at pigeons with air rifles and then once or twice a year my parents would take us on a daytrip to London.
On the train from Cambridge, London appears gradually from a fog of suburbia, high brick walls tattooed with graffiti and beyond them neat rows of narrow gardens: there is a football stadium, an industrial estate and with a final flourish, the Victorian grandeur of Kings Cross Station where suddenly we were dizzying down escalators towards the howl of tube trains and then to the Christmas decorations on Oxford Street or the street performers in Covent Garden or a birthday visit to the London Dungeon or the HMS Belfast or Madame Tussaud’s; we’d eat McDonalds in Leicester Square and drink in the bright lights through a plastic straw thinking how big it all was and how wondrous, a ravishing phantasmagoria of a city barely concealing beneath its glittering skin all the unnameable amazements that Sunday-night movies had taught us London and adulthood would contain.
When years later I moved to London I carried this version of the city with me; a snow globe placed on the windowsill of rented rooms in Tooting and Walthamstow and Bethnal Green where those seductive surfaces no longer appeared like gateways to a hidden world of glamour that simply reaching adulthood would unlock. Now they were just surfaces, like the blinding glare of a Piccadilly Circus Pepsi Ad or the computer-generated image of a gleaming skyscraper on a building-site hoarding, concealing only compromises and inequalities, boring men and their equally boring dreams. London was a city of locked doors. Apart from one door.
The door stood in London Bridge Station, it was small and black and if not secret then at least very discrete; no sign, no branding. On the other side of the door was the Shunt Lounge; the one in place in the entire city that seemed to belong more to my childhood idea of London, and of adulthood itself, than the grey reality of the rest of the city.
Shunt were, and still sort-of are, a theatre company made up of ten core members and a sprawling community of associates, collaborators and friends. They made shows of feverish energy and extravagant visuality in unlikely venues around London, including the space behind the small black door in London Bridge station. I never saw those shows though; I didn’t move to London until 2006, by which point they were over and the space behind the door was called the Shunt Lounge. The Lounge was not a show exactly, but neither was it a venue or a bar; you could instead perhaps describe it as an immersive light and sound installation, a cavernous art-machine smelling of railway-arch damp and looking like the mines of Moria if the Dwarves had all been really into techno; a vast subterranean labyrinth filled with lights and noise and people, carrying in its huge crocodile jaw an ever-changing line-up of performances, encounters, interventions, live bands, DJs and numerous other uncategorizable goings-on. There was a giant zip-line at one point, I think, and a temporary lake with its own rowing boat and a caravan and a forest of antique pinball machines. Then unexpectedly in its quieter corners you would find smaller, more delicate things; intimate shows in dusty rooms for a handful of people. Mischa Twitchin’s hands moving very slowly for half an hour in near total darkness; Simon Kane covered in rice pudding and carrying a giant dead fish, leading us out into the late-night emptiness of London Bridge station.
What I am trying to say is that the Shunt Lounge was audacious, perhaps the most audacious place I have ever been; a defiantly unsustainable, borderline uncontrollable theatre-grotto of wild fantasies and improbable spectacle built by a group of people just about holding it all together, and doing it for us, for anyone, for the people who came and paid £5 or whatever preposterously negligible price the entry fee was. In its warm bear-hug of an embrace, its cavernous depths, its unconcealed workers and workings, its invitation, implicit or otherwise, to be a part of it all whoever you might be, it was the literal opposite of the opaque surfaces I saw everywhere else around me. And if you stood in the middle of the packed bar on the right night, you could look up and see Nigel Barrett, his face obscured by thick wet mud, his naked arse silhouetted by the blinding white lights, staring down at all of us; a maniacal manifestation of everything weird and grandiose and right about this delirious fever dream of a place.
In my mind and in my heart, Nigel and Louise remain the living embodiment of the Shunt Lounge; its apostles, its torch-bearers, its designated mourners. Which is not to minimise the importance of other Shunt artists like Gemma Brockis, Hannah Ringham and David Rosenberg, who share its spirit in other ways and whose work I also continue to love. But there is something of the raggedy, subterranean spirit of the lounge that finds its ultimate expression in Nigel and Louise and the wilfully idiosyncratic, endlessly unpredictable, fearlessly audacious work they continue to make.
It is I think the audaciousness more than anything, and as has already been established I am a sucker for it, for those moments of swaggering wonder that go off like a firework or a hand grenade, dazzling you initially and then burnt into your memory, recounted to friends and colleagues, recalled even years later with a half-smile and a shake of the head – the audacity of it, the staggering chutzpah, the forest of real pine trees planted in a Wapping warehouse, the choir hidden in silence and darkness for over an hour for one minute of ecstatic harmony, the moment all the walls fall down, the moment the doors open and the light comes in, all these moments that make me feel like a child again, staring upwards in bewildered exhilaration at the world and all its infinite possibilities. I will forgive almost anything for a moment of theatre like this.
Such audaciousness is not simply about scale and spectacle. There is little risk in filling the stage with bodies and dazzling with light and sound when the size of both the stage and your budget make such actions unremarkably feasible, if not entirely expected; there is no hint of impudence or nerve in fulfilling the basic expectations of such a context. Perhaps in such circumstances, the audacious thing to do is almost nothing; Jerome Bel giving the whole of the stage of the Paris Opera to a soon-to-be-retired dancer from the corps de ballet to tell us the story of her life and career in thirty quiet minutes. For me audaciousness comes from fracturing the perceived limits of a given situation, stubbornly refusing to recognise the constraints or the expectations you are operating under.
There are few artists I know as stubbornly audacious as Nigel and Louise, as committed to the great gesture, to images of bewildering grandeur in tiny studio theatres, to conceits of painful complexity on the tightest of rehearsal schedules, to ideas of sweet impossibility. They are willing to experiment when no one wants them to, to genuinely embrace the possibility of failure in pursuit of something amazing, something that will amaze you; willing to believe that performances of limitless scope can made not just as we expect by grand companies on vast European stages but by two probably-drunk idiot-mystics who have seemingly no notion of what they should realistically be able to achieve on the budget they have and in the time frame they have promised.
Nigel and Louise are concerned with what is possible, or perhaps with the limits of possibility. They are mechanics, lunatic clockmakers, forever building theatre machines of fiendish complexity and intricate beauty, things ornate and spectacular with all their many parts on show. In Party Skills For the End of The World, for example, where the labyrinthine basement of Shoreditch Town Hall became a literal workshop in which we could learn to pick locks, throw knives, start fires and make crossbows, or at their The Festival of Adventures, where primary school children were whisked through a secret door behind the teacher’s back, to enter an elaborate world of hidden experiences taking place in the normally forbidden parts of the building. Like the Shunt Lounge itself, theirs are shows we are invited to step inside of, either literally or figuratively, ballets of moving parts, magic tricks performed inside out.
In The Body the audience were wired up to heart-rate monitors and their own internal mechanics formed the soundtrack of a show in which a cavalcade of other mechanical bodies swept across the small stage in a seemingly infinite collage of micro-scenes, each only a few seconds’ long but almost all of them staggering beautiful – a mechanical doll swimming endlessly in a tank of water; a microscopic camera reducing Nigel to a collage of colours projected on to the wall behind him; a doll sitting on a mound of sand whilst seaside holidays flicker in the background; the back wall of the theatre pulled away to reveal a vast warehouse full of dolls, at least three times the size of the entire room the rest of the show happened in, and in the centre of it a violinist playing, almost lost in this sea of artificial bodies. I will probably remember forever that moment when the doors opened and the world expanded; its audaciousness, its ridiculousness, all these hundreds of tiny figures arranged backstage in a matter of minutes for a moment lasting mere seconds. It was not only beautiful, not only completely improbable, it was filled with an uninhibited, uncontrollable love of theatre and its myriad possibilities; their love definitely but also ours.
Uncovering, unfolding, lovingly teasing things apart and putting them together again to see how they work, Nigel and Louise are the people I hoped I’d one day meet, inviting me behind the hidden doors of my childhood to see the things I always knew such doors concealed; all the violence and sex and laughter and chaos and adventure of the London I wanted to believe in, of adulthood I hoped I might live.
Performance in An Age of Precarity - 40 reflections by Maddie Costa & Andy Field is published by Metheun Drama