Meet the ‘filthy punk of theatre’

By John Nathan, March 28, 2008
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Maverick Shunt director David Rosenberg usually works underground. Now he’s emerging into daylight

"Look, sunlight," declares David Rosenberg. The director is standing on the terrace of Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre in West London. Come rain or shine, this open-air terrace will soon be full of people watching Contains Violence, Rosenberg’s latest site-specific show.

“It’s like the idea of weather never even occurred to me,” says Rosenberg. You would think he had been stuck underground for the last few years. And he has, pretty much.

For Rosenberg is one of the founders of the ground-breaking theatre group Shunt, whose home is 70,000 square feet of pitch-black darkness (when the lights are off) known as The Vaults, under London Bridge Station. “In The Vaults it’s the same, day or night. All year round, it’s the same,” he says.

For the past four years, this network of cavernous chambers has hosted the strange and eerie worlds created by Rosenberg and the rest of the 10-strong collective. With Shunt, you do not so much watch shows as experience them. Tropicana led its audience through a shadowy parallel world inhabited by fugitives and theatricals; Ether Frolics recreated the feeling of being anaesthetised, which drew on Rosenberg’s experience as a doctor.

A much earlier show drew on his Jewishness. For Pink Orthodox, Rosenberg bounced around on a Space Hopper while dressed as a Chassid. “The Chassidic aesthetic is very familiar,” says Rosenberg, though he and is family are not at all religious. “But I see more oddness there than with any other culture. Maybe it’s because I’m connected that it feels so odd.” But Pink Orthodox was not all about dressing up. It was about Jewish artists who were forced by the Nazis to be entertainers in the camps.

But for his latest show, Contains Violence, Rosenberg, who is 39, has taken a break from Shunt’s subterranean world and moved to the light of the Lyric’s terrace. In the summer they put tables out. But now, in the chilly spring, it is occupied mainly by smokers who use the uninspiring view to justify a cigarette. From the front of this concrete space you look down on to a grey square and the misplaced revelry of its dancing fountains. Above is the urban skyline of rooftops and office blocks.

“In some ways it is a film set,” maintains Rosenberg as he looks at the buildings that will serve as the setting for his theatrical thriller. Think, says the publicity puff, of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Like James Stewart’s character in the film, the audience is kitted out with binoculars. Through them, they will view disturbing events taking place behind far-away office windows. The companies occupying these spaces have, says Rosenberg, been very helpful. Because some of the scenes contain violence, the police have been informed in case passers-by get the wrong idea.

But Rosenberg’s coup here is more about sound than vision. Through special headphones you will be able to hear the action. “The real experiment with this piece is to transport the audience on this terrace into those buildings which are quite a distance away,” he explains. “Then they have to penetrate the glass and get into the heads of the protagonists. Visually the action is far removed, but the audio is incredibly intimate and intense.”

This is no ordinary method of transmitting sound. It is called binaural. It uses microphones planted in the ears of the person speaking. The result is what Rosenberg calls an “amazing three-dimensional soundscape” that lets you hear a person as those in the room hear them. Yet you watch them at a distance. It will, says Rosenberg, be unsettling.

Some of the work’s themes — voyeurism, crime — will be familiar to those who saw Shunt’s Amato Saltone. But Rosenberg has also drawn on the influences of his father Martin.

“He’s a [retired] neurophysiologist with an interest in hearing. He used to have a research chamber which was lying obsolete. We dismantled it and used it as an acoustic chamber in which to research the show.”

As a boy he remembers his father’s equipment — the headphones and the mannequin heads that used to wear them. “I’m sure it all had an influence on me. It’s taken a while for me to make it into a show — 30 years,” he says.

Around the time Shunt moved from Bethnal Green, in the East End, to the caverns under London Bridge, the company was endorsed by Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre’s artistic director. It had an enormous effect on the collective, turning them into the National’s avant-garde wing. “Overall, Nick Hytner’s endorsement was a positive thing for us,” says Rosenberg. But there is a note of reservation: “We’re the filthy punks of theatre, we’re messy, we don’t finish our shows on time, we have different priorities. Things don’t necessarily have to be good, they just have to be exciting. Having the endorsement of an institution did feel like our identity was floating away from us a little bit.”

When Rosenberg was 37, life changed again. His video-designer partner Susanna — who is part of the Shunt collective — gave birth to Miila and Nico, their twin daughters. “I was already juggling a lot with medicine. And I had traditionally worked long hours underground in the Vaults.” Working on the script at home for Contains Violence — “There is a narrative. There is a plot to follow, which is unusual for me” — has allowed Rosenberg to see his family.

But after the Hammersmith run, he will be back in The Vaults developing the Shunt Lounge, a sort of night-time art centre. “We’re working on new ways art can be delivered in London. By the end of the year we should have another Shunt show,” says Rosenberg. “But it may not be in The Vaults. We may take it somewhere else.” Somewhere else underground? “Probably.” There is a rueful note to his answer. As if Rosenberg is already missing the sunlight.

    Last updated: 3:01pm, February 18 2011