Submersive theatre: a bigger splash!

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'Fuerzabruta' is back and the antics are edgier, louder and messier than ever, says Paul Bignell

If your idea of a good night out at the theatre involves a cerebral interpretation of a classic work, viewed from a comfortable seat, with a discussion of its highlights over a glass of brandy during the interval, Fuerzabruta probably isn't for you.

If, however, you dare to brave the Argentinian physical-theatre extravaganza this winter, throughout its duration you're likely to be blasted with hot air, herded around the theatre space like well-choreographed cattle, potentially soaked to the bone and, if you're very lucky, dragged up on stage and made to dance in front of (several hundred) members of the audience. Sounds like fun? Well, you're in luck. More than six years since Fuerzabruta (which means brute force) stormed north London's Roundhouse and then the world, it returns this Christmas promising even more exhilaration than last time around.

Then, critics fell over themselves to describe the show: "ferociously stimulating", said one; "acrobatically breathtaking" gasped our own Kate Bassett.

So it was with no little trepidation that I accepted the invitation to meet some of the cast in New York recently. As before, there's nothing resembling a plot – it is, I am told beforehand, about overloading the senses with a series of set-piece stunts, neatly segued by a pulsating, techno-folk soundtrack. The audience gets as perilously close to the action as the company's insurance providers will presumably allow – which, in this brave new world of pure-performance theatre, is very close indeed.

One of the central, recurring set-pieces involves a man in a white suit, walking on a conveyor belt in the centre of the room. As the belt accelerates dramatically, plastic tables and chairs are placed in his way, closely followed by people Ω who drop heavily off the other side like theatrical lemmings. He's now running, and very fast. Then a gun-shot rings out and the audience gasps. Two women, wailing like banshees, run around the sides of the room attached to a motorised high-wire, some 25 feet up. It's tiring just watching.

The show is the creation of Argentine director Diqui James. If his name's not familiar, his work might be: his first show, De La Guarda, was also a hit at the Roundhouse more than a decade ago and encompassed the same mixture of theatre, dance and improvised acrobatics. A falling out with a business partner meant James had to relinquish the name, but he and his crew then had the freedom to create something new. So in 2005, Fuerzabruta was born.

Since then the show has travelled the world performing everywhere from Bogota to Berlin and from Moscow to Manila. On Broadway alone, more than half a million people have seen the show since 2007, with music giants Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and actor Jude Law said to be fans.

Buenos Aires-based James believes the key to its success is keeping audiences excited. "Nowadays, I think audiences need to be very stimulated to really wake them up," he tells me. "I think we are already so stimulated during the day with everything that's going on in the city. You need to have a lot of energy to move people.

"We want to go faster than your mind," he says, "like you are living something for the first time. Then when you leave the show, you start thinking about what happened. We want to be powerful enough and fast enough that you are involved in everything."

All of which means Fuerzabruta is a close-knit team. The seven performers work alongside five ushers who skilfully direct the crowd around the floor space – no easy feat in itself. But the cast members don't disappear backstage when they're not involved in a particular setpiece. They can be seen aiding their colleagues with the stunts as well as directing the crowd.

Such a physical performance on and off stage takes its toll on cast members, who generally perform seven times a week during the summer months.

Holly Shunkey, Fuerzabruta's "dance captain", describes to me, on the day after the show, the physical rigours involved: "We have physical therapy at work and we all do other things to really take care of our body," she says. "I've found over time, my body has adapted for what it needs to do." She adds that the most common problems are neck and knee injuries.

One of the most talked-about setpieces includes a giant see-through swimming pool, hoisted above the audience's heads, in which four of the female cast zip and swirl around like flotsam. The pool, at times, is lowered so that the audience can reach up and touch it.

Stephen Shaw, the show's producer, believes there are no limits to such immersive theatre. "The audience are seeing something they've never seen before," he says. "There's nothing in the world like it. The feeling you get … how energetic and powerful it is."

The past decade has witnessed a boom in theatre that wrenches audiences out of traditional auditoria. From large-scale, site-specific performances such as Michael Sheen's 72-hour play, the Passion of Port Talbot, to the immersive theatre of Punchdrunk, where people have wandered around the tunnels beneath Waterloo Station for hours; to the physical extravaganza put on by the likes of the Fuerzabruta, company, Cirque du Soleil and La Clique. Often audiences are expected to join in.

James says he has always had the desire to increase audience participation in his work.

"Nowadays you have a lot of individual experiences with art," he says. "I can watch a film at home or in my car; I can listen to music or read a book by myself .... The theatre is the only form of art where you need the audience and the cast in the same place. For me it is boring for you to sit down in a theatre – it's like watching TV at home. I like to move the 'camera' – I have to move you and the stage."

Appropriately for an experience that pushes the bounds of theatre, some performances will give way to a club night – sadly, there are no plans to do this in London.

But if the New York performances are to be repeated on this side of the Atlantic, the audiences should have more than enough to keep them occupied. As the evening drew to a close, three hip, young New Yorkers step outside, wearing ear-to-ear grins, soaked to the skin. So, if you think Fuerzabruta is for you, perhaps bring a towel.

'Fuerzabruta' is at London's Roundhouse, 27 Dec Ω 26 Jan 2013 (0844 482 8008); roundhouse.org.uk

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