It’s very fitting that a show which epitomised the very best in experimental immersive theatre, De La Guarda, would catapult the Roundhouse back into London’s cultural landscape. Roundhouse Youth Blogger Michael McCubbin talks about this groundbreaking show…
Throughout its illustrious history, the Roundhouse has made a name for itself as far more than just a live music venue. From the building’s rebirth in the 1960s to now, theatre and experimentation have always featured largely in the centre’s projects and general outlook. It’s very fitting then, that a show which epitomised the very best in experimental immersive theatre, would catapult the Roundhouse back into London’s cultural landscape so decisively at the turn of the millennium.
Villa Villa, brought to the Roundhouse by Argentinian theatre collective De La Guarda, took the capital by storm when it arrived in 1999. It also held the venue’s Main Space captive for a record-breaking eleven months before it was closed for refurbishment. Following in the vein of groundbreaking productions such as Kenneth Tynan’s Oh Calcutta! in the 1970s, audiences were treated to something not quite like anything they’d seen before. With no assigned seating and no set stage, the barriers between the crowd and performers were shattered.
“It brought people in who didn’t think theatre was for them,” said co-creator Diqui James, “It was an event” – or as one critic put it, “an acid trip without the acid!”
De La Guarda’s ethos was to “combine the energy of rock’n’roll and the reality of theatre”, and in doing so fill a cultural gap they felt existed in their native Buenos Aires. Following years of repression, censorship laws were finally lifted in Argentina in 1983, and James has noted that at this time “there was a community of artists in Argentina that was ready to explode, who wanted to do something visceral”. The conditions were perfect for a group like De La Guarda to form.
During this time, the Roundhouse was going through a transitional period of its own. In 1983, a lack of funds forced the closure of the arts centre. In the thirteen years following, multiple initiatives tried and failed to gather enough steam for a reopening, until the Norman Trust bought the building for £6m in 1996. De La Guarda landed in London for the first time a year later, premiering Villa Villa at an East End warehouse.
In the meantime, things were bubbling away nicely in Chalk Farm. Artists such as Elvis Costello and Suede were bringing rock’n’roll back to the Main Space, and productions such as the Royal National Theatre’s Oh! What A Lovely War were drawing public attention back to the historic venue. When Diqui James and co. made the space their temporary home, however, the Roundhouse lived up to its past glory in offering up a totally new experience to all. Its impact was so much so that James was invited back to open the newly refurbished building with his new show Fuerza Bruta in 2006.
With their unique mix of circus tricks, acrobatic physical theatre and twisted humour, De La Guarda transported revellers at the Roundhouse to a new reality. The spectacle created by the group was utterly intense and otherworldly, but also immediate and tangible. The audience became part of the show, challenged by the performers not to be mere spectators. Some were whisked skywards by dancers on trapezes, others simply drenched with water. All were left amazed and dumbfounded by what they had experienced – an abrasive, sensual and psychedelic punch in the face to the traditional conventions of theatre. No wonder posters for the show came with the tagline “As Good As Sex”.
For many, this was an understatement.