Somewhere between a Bertolucci interior (think The Dreamers and Last Tango) and the worst kind of corporate job (think failed gimmicks and lifestyle companies from the 90s) via Chernobyl or The Road, Dreamthinkspeak’s latest sell-out, site-responsive theatre performance stakes its territory. In the beginning was the end takes over the hidden corners of Somerset House, transporting you from one side of the grand courtyard to the other, through windy, dripping tunnels and dilapidated Georgian corridors. It is this extraordinary setting that ultimately makes the performance worth seeing.
(I’m going to talk details, so this contains spoilers.)
Allegedly inspired by the cross-disciplinary engineering marvels Leonardo of Da Vinci, this production actually seems to resonate more soundly with contemporary stereotypes of corporate culture and the desire to predict, even provoke, its inevitable collapse. The lofty inspirations for the piece – Renaissance science, the Book of Revelation – are realised more through further references to 80s geekery and nuclear meltdown. In my personal mythology, Da Vinci does not wear a white coat, and an empty telephone box that barks insults in broken English is not something that sits happily alongside the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Whilst I recognise that such sources are open for interpretation and naturally need not correspond directly to my interpretation, I can’t help feeling that this kind of literary name-dropping was a way to claw gravitas back into something that is, essentially, distinguished by its other remarkable features.
Nonetheless, if you forget the ‘sources’, the story successfully catapults us straight into the action by inviting (coercing?) us to sit round a table in a bland conference room without any windows. A screen at one end plays a silent CCTV film of an identical room, in which three ’employees’ are discussing heatedly. A woman enters and begins to read from an ancient book – but she’s speaking in facts and figures, not literary tropes or letters of faith. We settle in, suppressing our glee, but just as we’re getting comfortable, the woman stops, apologises and leaves awkwardly. We wait. And then she is replaced by a man ostensibly with the same book who begins to chant in a language completely unrecognisable to myself or others. As his voice gets louder and louder, the fire alarm sounds, a wall rolls back (the fourth wall? But of course) and we are pushed rapidly through a series of workshop spaces, evacuating not just the meeting room but also our sense of self and ordinary expectation.
The plot – if it can be called that: many who attend will miss the spoon feeding of a traditional narrative – divides roughly into three parts. First, a sequence of rooms that present messages of mathematics and machines in which white-coated ‘experts’ attempted to teach us formulae in languages that were familiar enough to feel European, but obviously not one that we might have learnt at school. Next, we were welcomed into the central vortex of the corporate heart – an open day at Fusion International, complete with ‘petbot’ demonstrations and a creepy French compere. Watching this break apart was one of the more successful pieces of the show: in a room not unlike a student IT suite, employees of Fusion International start shouting at their colleagues in turn, plaintively, aggressively, agitatedly. As they work themselves up (again, not speaking in English) they start to take off their clothes until, completely naked, they smile, relax and walk out of the room. The full cycle for all 15 of the cast takes around half an hour, but it is well worth the wait. Finally, the pace slows, the rooms empty out. Figures outside the windows fall slowly to their end. Abandoned media pieces play on and on into the abyss.
For some, the aesthetics of the performance will not hang together; for others, the quick moves between the dark tunnels and the bright lights will energise the show. For myself, the action was thrilling, the cast extraordinarily convincing and dynamic, and the setting beyond magnificent, engaging the audience in a tangible, bodily fashion. There was never a glitch in the set: no glimpses of backstage clutter despite the fact that the action ranged through easily twenty or so spaces and some extraordinary moments of spectacle such as the illuminated alphabet art that fizzed and jostled as you walked towards it, and the lemon grove that concluded the sequence. Even the security attendants sat suitably subdued raising the occasional arm to direct us like a friendly zombie. Yet the experience was let down by its plot. With nothing very new to say and largely dependent on out of date corporate stereotypes and post-apocalyptic culture, the action dipped its feet in the present of 2013, but only fleetingly. If theatre is, as David Edgar has said in various iterations, a place where the actual can explore its furthest limits, In the beginning was the end has missed the mark.
But do go, if only for the lemons.