Down we go: down one staircase and then another, down into the warren of basements and sub-basements beneath the grand Italianate courtyard of Somerset House. Tristan Sharps, artistic director of dreamthinkspeak, has a fascination with the spaces above, behind, between and below; his new production occupies a huge swathe of hidden rooms and corridors beneath that magnificent central courtyard, the bits of the building into which few people ever venture, a series of half-glimpsed corners usually concealed behind gates and locked doors, down dusty neglected stairwells.
Somerset House is a gift of a space for a project like this, vast and labyrinthine; there’s a lovely rabbit hole-y sensation when you first file down into the dark, leaving behind the sanctioned public spaces.
The production, which takes place in three separate but interconnected parts of the building – the East Wing and the West Wing of Somerset House as well as the old engineering department of King’s College – is, in turn, roughly divided into three separate but interconnected sections. The first is a flickering world full of drawers and doors; bathed in sickly subterranean light, it’s a dark alien space in which your own reflected image in a window or on a television screen occasionally catches you off guard. Machine parts litter the desks and chalk marks infest the walls: the overspillings of overloaded minds. There is a sense of abandonment about these first rooms, an eerie quality intensified by ominous humming sounds and the numerous signs warning you about sheer drops, hazardous chemicals and silent alarms.
The next phase is – in stark contrast – very clinical in design: a bright, white world. Signs inform us that this is the headquarters of an international technology company called Fusion International. As we move from room to room, an array of products are demonstrated for our benefit; there’s something sinister about this space too, this underground laboratory, with its white-coated employees speaking rapidly in a variety of tongues.
Eventually these employees start to rebel against the system that constrains them, performing an act of rejection and liberation; together they create a Biblical tableau of bodies ascending, an image which is both classical in its aesthetic and incredibly vulnerable and human at the same time.
Whereas, with large scale installations by companies like Punchdrunk, if you’re not one to follow the crowd you can sometimes find yourself floating through a series of beautiful but empty rooms, missing out on the most exciting scenes and set pieces. Here, while you can and should wander off and explore, there’s far less of a chance of missing out on something vital and while each audience member has a degree of control in how they experience the piece, everyone’s journey encompasses the same key points.
The production was inspired by what Sharps calls an ‘apocalyptic doodle’ by Leonardo da Vinci, entitled “A Cloudburst of Material Possessions”, which depicts a great flood of manmade objects, a tide of things. While this single image provided the seed that branched and grew and became In the Beginning, it’s not necessary to know this as you explore. Part of the pleasure is in joining the dots for yourself, piecing it all together, picking up on the recurring imagery – of flood, of technological obsolescence – which flow through the production. Though there are times when it all feels a little too elusive and opaque, it is full of striking images as well as a surprising amount of humour; as an experience, In the Beginning is part psychogeographic adventure, part concrete poem (in the most literal sense), a fascinating descent into a world of rooms beneath rooms beneath rooms, of city striations, the trickle of water omnipresent.