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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Somerset House


  Sebastian Sabene and Anais Alvarado/ Ph: Jim Stephenson

If anyone could link cogs with the "cogito ergo sum" aspect of humanity (admittedly the latter was yet to be conceptualised) it was Leonardo da Vinci. From his flying machine to the war machines that he later repudiated, he saw technology as a conduit for a vast spectrum of human fantasies. This meant that he fully appreciated the Faustian nature of our relationship with machines – something that others have addressed in works as diverse as the Hepburn/Tracey caper Desk Set, Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Spielberg’s forthcoming Robocalypse. Now, in a wing of Somerset House the site-specific company dreamthinkspeak offers its own appealingly idiosyncratic meditation on the theme.
For those who aren’t aware of dreamthinkspeak, it is a quietly extraordinary company that has an ability to go into the most unpromising areas of buildings – badly lit corridors, unremarkable rooms, drafty warehouse spaces – and create a haunting world. They are less flashy than the site-specific company Punchdrunk, but for my money more interestingly inventive. Last time they were at Somerset House, in 2004, they created a series of installations based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. The most sensational took place underground, and showed a bride being sucked backwards into Stygian darkness. Now they return to the same venue with a piece loosely inspired by Da Vinci’s "A Cloudburst of Material Possessions," his sprawling sketch in which mechanical objects pelt down from the sky.
Tristan Sharps, the founder and artistic director of dreamthinkspeak, has a gift for images that knock you backwards before making you smile. He wants to make audiences feel disorientated enough to feel disconcerted – but then uses that disorientation to inspire curiosity rather than alarm. One of the rooms here has a screen in it, on which we can watch a corporate meeting that slowly and comedically becomes submerged in water. When you walk into another room, that meeting is reproduced in miniature, with dolls replacing the humans. You walk up closely to examine it, and see that goldfish are swimming between their legs.
The central narrative strand is that you are visiting a company called FUSION INTERNATIONAL, which is developing machines that address emotional needs (such as the desire to have an argument with your partner). Because a lot of the piece depends on the surprise factor, it would be wrong to go into detail – suffice it to say that we witness the relationship between humans and machines breaking down so that the mood goes from the corporately smug to the apocalyptic. As if to emphasise the gradual breakdown in communications, we are bombarded, Babel-style, with characters issuing us instructions in different languages. The acting is so clear, you are never in any doubt as to what is going on, but it all adds to the sense of a world going slowly off kilter.
This is not the greatest of dreamthinkspeak’s works, but the company has very high standards. When they did a series of installations inspired by Chekhov’s A Cherry Orchard in an abandoned Brighton shop, some fashionably jaded critics I know said it was the best thing they had seen that year. The bizarre truth for a company whose primary impact is visual is that they seem to work best when they are inspired by something that already has a strong narrative. Such cavils aside, the piece is still well worth visiting for a series of arresting coups de theatre that invoke a very modern apocalypse. 


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