The Roundhouse started life as a railway shed and became a magnet for radical art and raving lunacy. Time Out took a sneak peek at the revamp in progress and met the Argentinians who will literally be making a splash for the grand reopening
Most Londoners had never seen anything like it. For an intense 70 minutes it was as if some ecstatic riot had broken out in the Roundhouse. Men in suits and women in flirty dresses pursued each other up and down the walls in a giddy gravity-defying display of euphoria; clusters of performers – showered with water and suspended on ropes – swooped over the audience’s heads, ready to grab individuals out of the crowd and whirl them into the air for 15 seconds of fame. ‘It’s as good as sex,’ gasped one critic; ‘An acid trip without the acid!’ hyperventilated another. The phenomenon known to Londoners as De La Guarda had arrived.
That was 1999, five years before the Roundhouse closed its doors for a £29.7 million refurbishment. At that point the flamboyantly Argentinian De La Guarda seemed like an exotic outsider, one of many such dynamic specimens originally introduced to the capital by the London International Festival of Theatre. However, during its run at the Roundhouse with that first show, ‘Periodo Villa Villa’, the company made the building so much its own that it made perfect sense when Torquil Norman, chairman of the Roundhouse Trust, announced the venue would reopen with its follow-up work, ‘Fuerzabruta’. Put together by one of De La Guarda’s founders, Diqui James, and composer Gaby Kerpel, ‘Fuerzabruta’ is a slightly darker but equally physical piece of theatre, which aims similarly to drive people into a hedonistic frenzy.
The Roundhouse refreshed
James has always been struck by the different ways that audiences across the world have responded to his work. ‘In Japan they react a lot when their bodies are touched, so if you throw water over them, it’s a totally crazy experience; if you go to Switzerland, they are kind, and don’t want to make a noise while you’re performing.’ And in its native Buenos Aires it takes on yet another dimension. Although his work feels like undiluted escapism, its roots are fiercely political: ‘When [General Leopoldo Galtieri’s] dictatorship fell in 1983, and democracy started, there was a very strong cultural and social explosion.’ James was 19 at the time, and as theatre companies around him groped for a way of throwing off fascism’s legacy through the written word, he, by contrast, was ‘going out into the streets and mixing with people making music, and painting, and films. Maybe that’s why what we’re doing is so personal and so unique – we were making crazy things without any influence.’
I fly out to Lisbon just before Christmas to see ‘Fuerzabruta’. The shimmering sense of celebration in the Portuguese capital’s streets and squares deposits me in a suitably festive mood at Toyota Box, the large warehouse venue next to the river where the piece is being staged. Already the trademark Latin club music is pumping out of the auditorium, upping the adrenalin as the crowd is ushered in. Part of the seduction of James’ theatrical vision is that the line between performance and wild party is extremely thin and, as the ushers sweep everyone to one side of the auditorium, some audience members are already dancing.
No one is invited to do anything as middle-aged as sit down at a De La Guarda show. It’s an essential component of ‘Fuerzabruta’s’ anarchy that people are never quite sure where the next spectacle will appear from. Suddenly a man appears from the darkness on a treadmill, running as if pursued by an imaginary pack of wolves. Barriers fly towards him, creating a surreal obstacle course – Alice-in-Wonderland doors leading to nowhere, rooms filled with an insane clutter of furniture – yet no matter what he has to negotiate, somehow he keeps on going.
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