He may be the world’s greatest poster boy for innovation, but in a sketch entitled ‘A Cloudburst of Material Possession’, Leonardo Da Vinci exhibited a cynical second opinion concerning how we embrace new technologies and indicated that doubt can exist even in the minds of the greatest advocates of scientific design. Responding to such contradiction with apparent ease in this engaging site-responsive piece, dreamthinkspeak runs with Da Vinci’s ideas – and drags its audience along for the ride.
Taking us around the spellbinding neo-classical architecture of Somerset House and the neglected grandeur of the Kings College London’s electronics department, In the Beginning Was the End may be a promenade production, but it’s no walk in the park. From the discarded hallways of an empty university to the glossy and clinically whitewashed rooms where the threatening international company Fusion Ltd showcases its new electronic products, we are invited to roam around different spaces at our own pace, taking in as many details as we want. As we follow the meandering course of the tale – sometimes breaking away from fellow explorers to wander nervously down empty corridors, at other points being pushed along by anxious characters – we are given striking arguments concerning the relationship between man and mechatronics, but at no point in Tristan Sharps’s emphatically non-linear narrative is the initial uncertainty ever resolved.
Like the polymath who inspired this piece, dreamthinkspeak is nothing if not inventive. Here, the group cultivates a brilliant style of involvement. Rejecting conventional theatre styles that keep audiences at a safe distance, Sharps’s work actively articulates and plays with our redundancy, placing us in situations where even the best placed empathy will have no effect on a struggling individual just centimeters away. Silenced and ineffectual, we stumble into a homely laboratory, where a man dressed in pajamas and slippers is determined to create electricity from lemons. There’s a rebellious urgency to this individual’s work, and his quest is given a darkly humorous visual edge as he turns off a bright, mains-powered lamp to check the small bulb within his rudimentary circuit. In this strangely personal episode, our scientist’s need for an answer is infectious, and it’s difficult to leave him to continue his absurdly poetic struggle alone.
While the title of this piece suggests neat narrative containment, there is no clear beginning to this piece and there is certainly no conclusive end. The final instalment involves a walk down a corridor, where a mournful cello piece accompanies the unrelenting apology of a faulty Fusion Ltd automaton in sound designer Greg Clarke’s rich symphony of remorse. In different corners of the spectacular venue, multiple outcomes are enacted. In one particularly powerful scene, disillusioned customer service representatives unite in a naked revolution. Further down the corridor, other workers express their loss of faith in “the machine”(and an abundance of faith in rope) as they fall flailing outside windows. Some drown, and some adapt with the help of underwater breathing apparatus. The power of each reaction is not lessened by the multiplicity of finishes, but at this point it’s hard to feel quenched as each new ending cancels out its predecessor.
Reflecting Da Vinci’s fears with a retro sense of modernity, this is a play about the discipline of science, but it is also a work that speaks persuasively about the human condition. Once the end has been announced and yet another spiral staircase leads us down to the exit, a sharp citrus aroma pulls us towards a final, triumphant conclusion, which speaks victorious volumes about the humble scientist we left in his secretive lab. Now, we hear the voice of timeless optimism, wordlessly repeating the age-old adage, “When life gives you lemons, create an elegant garden walkway. Decorate it with citrus trees and illuminate with schoolroom electric circuits, and create a work as beautiful as it is electric.”
In the Beginning was the End is playing at Somerset House until 30 March. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/in-the-beginning-was-the-end-dreamthinkspeak-at-somerset-house.