The Bunker, written and directed by Joshua Trappett, explores the aftermath of an apocalyptic event that leaves two sisters trapped in a bunker, traumatised and with no way of knowing when they will be able to leave or if anything remains for them outside. It is hard to think of a more appropriate location for such a performance than tucked away in the basement of Union House. Before they had even reached their seats, audience members found themselves in a dark underground space with low ceilings and no phone reception, vaguely disoriented and with a receding awareness of the world above. This was the first indicator that The Bunker would be an immersive experience, confining its audience to an intimate and emotionally charged space and encouraging them to share in the claustrophobia and anxiety of its characters.
The stage itself was a shallow alcove, presumably a storage space, with nowhere for the actors to hide behind. Strategically placed lanterns provided diegetic lighting, an effective decision on the part of lighting designer Holi Walsh. These lanterns dimly illuminated bare cement walls, crumpled bedding, crates of tinned soup and a bucket in the corner.
Against this backdrop, Cat Mount and Caitlin Pasquali delivered impressive performances as sisters Alice and Maddi. Together and alone, they grappled with feelings of frustration, desperation, grief, shock and trauma that were magnified to an almost unbearable intensity within the confined space of The Bunker. The tension and conflict between the sisters was compounded by the inescapable intimacy of their situation, torn between hatred and mutual dependence. Such dichotomies – between safety and suffocation, prison and refuge, restlessness and anxiety, love and violence – are explored deeply as both sisters descend into a private madness that ricochets against the concrete walls of the bunker and leaves tragedy and destruction in its wake. However, the intensity of the performances and the frequency with which both sisters dissolved into hysteria, frustration and heaving anxiety ran the risk of desensitising the audience to the suffering on-stage and causing them to disengage with the narrative. It was easy to share in the restlessness of the characters as their screaming, sobbing, sleeping and pacing bordered on monotony. This disengagement felt particularly apparent in the beginning and around the halfway mark of the performance, with the audience confronted by hysterics and melodramatic dialogue from the outset. In the same vein, it would have been satisfying to see a little more subtlety and distinctiveness in the scripted development and performance of both Alice and Maddi’s characters, inviting empathetic identification and thus increasing the believability of the extreme and highly dramatised narrative premise.
Nevertheless, many elements of the production remained strong throughout. Make-up by Lina Ferndale-Gawain was effective in conveying the exhaustion and anxiety that pervaded Mount and Pasquali’s performances, while the use of diegetic music coming from an old transistor radio was a particularly well executed plot point that furthered the crumbling and increasingly divergent private worlds.
As the piece came to its final, crashing denouement, one was left impressed by the novelty and intensity of the performance on the whole. However, again there was the distinct sense that along with a can opener and a few other necessities for survival, genuine depth of characterisation and creativity in dialogue had been ‘left on the surface’, failing to transcend the generic tropes of apocalyptic tragedy and instead delivering an effective reiteration of a well-established narrative.
The Bunker took a classic and literal approach in tackling this year’s Mudfest theme, ‘How do we respond to an increasingly frightening world?’ The result was a fairly well-executed and intense performance that raised questions about the nature of safety, family, anxiety and love, but which would benefit from further development to do justice to the enduring power of its central themes.
The Bunker ran from the 22nd – 26th of August as part of Mudfest 2017.