Their shows feature naked writhings in an earth pit and cannibalistic air-crash survivors, and their biggest fan is National Theatre boss Nicholas Hytner. Dominic Cavendish meets Shunt, Britain's most innovative – and elusive – theatre company, in their cavernous new home
While everyone was praising Nicholas Hytner's new regime at the National in their reviews of 2003 last year, the golden boy of British theatre himself singled out as his most memorable cultural highlight a show that would have drawn a blank from most people: Dance Bear Dance by a company called Shunt.
Underground: Shunt's next performance will be in the labyrinthine London Bridge vaults in September
For such a prominent figure to champion such an unknown commodity might have smacked of seasonal charity. Only those lucky enough to have seen Dance Bear Dance would have understood how thoroughly deserved the praise was.
Running counter to the publicity-seeking spirit of the age, Shunt have, until now, remained cultishly aloof, seemingly camera-shy and indifferent to press attention.
To catch them in action over the past few years required a schlep to their railway-arch base in Bethnal Green, located down a grotty alley. And, even after you'd seen them, you couldn't be sure who you'd seen: "Devised, directed, designed and performed by Shunt" was the sum of their programme credits.
The underground buzz about them began to build in earnest with The Ballad of Bobby François (2000), based on the true story of the Uruguay rugby team plane crash of 1972, when the survivors, stranded in the Andes, resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
The audience were plunged into a full-on simulation of the crash, with a fusillage violently ripped away from under their seats.
A number of projects followed, but the breakthrough was Dance Bear Dance, believes Tom Morris, the former artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre, who has followed the company's progress since its founding in 1998 by a group of likeminded post-grad students from Central drama school.
"To say that it was exciting just wouldn't do justice to the experience," he says. "Your preconceptions were forcibly rearranged."
Grand-sounding claims, but how else to describe being shepherded into a musty archway, required to gather around a mock UN conference table for a serio-comic briefing about a terrorist plot, then left utterly stunned when a giant metal door was whipped back to reveal another audience identically assembled in the adjacent archway?
After that bombshell moment, which Hytner described as "the most astonishing and disorienting coup de théâtre I've ever seen", a series of sequences unfolded with the logic of a nightmare: circus larks in a gambling den, naked writhings in an earth pit and sinister wordless interrogations. You left to the sight of a bear sweeping up the refuse.
How to top that? Well, the answer might lie in the new space Shunt have just acquired for their avant-garde explorations in the vaults of London Bridge station.
Their patch in Bethnal Green had become a bit overfamiliar and constrictive, says director David Rosenberg, so the search began for something twice as big. By chance, they stumbled on a space 30 times the size - 70,000 sq ft in total - right in the heart of the capital, a stone's throw from the London Dungeon.
The site, formerly home to a wine warehouse, was available at a lower than average rent on a short-term lease pending the station's redevelopment.
"It took a year to get it," Rosenberg says, unable to suppress a smile of pride. "We never believed it was going to happen because it's so insane. But we're here."
Around him stretches a vast labyrinth of arched chambers, imbued with the cool, still, immense aura of a cathedral. At present, the main entrance lies in a gloomy tunnel-like side street, but the plan is for the public to enter through an emergency-exit door at London Bridge tube station, so that they will step from the everyday world into breathtaking, unfamiliar territory.
It might be billed as the greatest fringe theatre on earth, except that Shunt - who describe themselves as a "collective", all 10 members having an equal say in decision-making - frown at the word "fringe".
"For us, it tends to mean cheap or bad, or performed in a pokey space," says Rosenberg. "Quite often you look at what's being shown on the fringe, and it falls within the same spectrum of things you get in the West End or off-West End, only it's smaller in scale. That's not what we're about."
Their disillusionment with conventional theatre spaces began almost as soon as they started making work. "We always found it unsatisfactory when we did shows in other venues that the audience would go to that theatre's bar, box office, toilets etc, then come and see our show," says Rosenberg.
"It's very important to us that the point at which you enter and leave the space is all part of the performance."
Their relative anonymity is not a pose, but based on the fact that the usual hierarchies don't apply. "I'm the director," Rosenberg explains, "but I do as much work with pliers or a pneumatic drill as direct. The work is so collaborative, you can't point to individual contributions."
Their tight control of the performing environment can make audiences can feel pretty intimidated. "There are always parts of every show that involve the audience feeling fear. Sometimes that is just a case of turning the lights out. At other times, it's about making them think about what's expected of them.
"Usually the expectation is worse than anything they have to do. We're not trying to make them feel so uncomfortable they want to leave."
At the moment, the only people feeling fear in this awesome space are Shunt themselves. The task of installing the necessary equipment is daunting, and their new home is so huge, they often lose each other.
"If you forget to turn the lights on, there's a 10-minute walk to the nearest light switch," Rosenberg jokes.
As we speak, acres of space remain barely touched. The first show is scheduled to preview from September. Secrecy will remain paramount throughout the development process.
"With all our shows, there should be a feeling that you want to tell other people to go and see it, but you can't tell them why because the not knowing was one of the key interests of the performance. For this new show, you won't know what to expect at all."
Nicholas Hytner, their number one fan, is so confident that Shunt will deliver the goods that, as well as providing a range of logistical support through the National, he's taken the exceptional step of allowing bookings for the new show to be conducted via the NT box office.
"It really felt, watching Dance Bear Dance, like something new was happening," he eulogises, "a strange hybrid of theatre, performance art and installation. It didn't feel like a fringe experience at all."
If you want to be first in line to see what all the fuss is about, you'd better make sure you're on the National Theatre's mailing list. Failing that, you can always loiter with intent round the Joiner Street ticket barriers at London Bridge station, awaiting further instructions.
The Telegraph 29.06.04