In The Beginning Was The End – dreamthinkspeak @ National Theatre, until 30 March 2013
In the beginning we are full of a nervous expectation. In the end we are full of a crushing disappointment. In the middle we find a soufflé – an indulgent and elaborate work that looks more and more underwhelming as time goes by.
It is difficult to describe how many things are wrong with dreamthinkspeak’s attempt to weave inspiration from Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘A Cloudburst of Material Possessions’ into a multi-stranded meditation on a world at a supposed crux of development and chaos.
It is difficult to describe because that would have entailed dreamthinkspeak feeling it was necessary to share any of their ideas with the audience rather than thinking that a hotchpotch collection of site-specific installations mixed with cod-philosophy and an imagined future that seemed startlingly reminiscent of a mid-1980’s episode of Tomorrows World was an acceptable substitute.
At the end of the audience’s ‘journey’ (even the word makes me cringe) you are handed a leaflet outlining the thinking behind what you have just seen. It is quite a useful addition if for no other reason than for the fact that it demonstrates that the cringingly pretentious claptrap that you have spent the last 70 minutes watching seem just as cringingly pretentious when written down.
‘John the Baptist…seems to be ever present. Is he pointing the way to The Second Coming, to our death, to the end-of-world, or is he a false prophet who leads us on then abandons us to an uncertain fate? Does the slightly strange man obsessed with lemons have the answers? He seems to be dreaming of a new kind of Eden. But is it a real or a comprised paradise? The final installation mixes the organic with rudimentary technology but is it really the way forward?”
Well, when given lemons…
It feels like damning with faint praise to suggest that most successful element of the production is the decision to have the characters not speak in English. It created an atmosphere where the audience is dislocated from their surroundings and unable to make the usual connections between sound and language. The idea that science can create a universal language of understanding is made quite clear during a sequence where scientists demonstrate their projects. Despite not hearing words we understand, we still ‘know’ what we are hearing. If only the point of the production was so understandable.
In The Beginning Was The End seems to take an almost perverse interest in remaining inexplicable. As the name suggests you appear to travel through the production in reverse; starting in the middle of an ‘event’ where, if you were in a computer game, you would pick up a gun and start cutting down wave after wave of enemies unleashed as a result of a science experiment gone awry. Were it were that fun.
It is never clear ‘what’ has happened, ‘why’ it has happened’ or ‘how’ it has happened. It is also unclear ‘why’ we should care about any of this. There are no characters, nothing as traditional as a plot, motifs reappear in different contexts but without obvious narrative purpose. Within these scenes are some arresting images but since the producers care so little about explanations there doesn’t seem any great point in investing much attention.
The production is part of the wearying trend for site-specific productions. They can be brilliant, as Hydrocracker’s take on Pinter in Shoreditch Town Hall amply demonstrated and, whilst in my opinion they don’t always deliver, Punchdrunk have shown many times how to create truly immersive productions.
What both of these companies have in common are productions underpinned by a forensic level of clarity about their purpose. Locating Pinter’s political plays in old town halls is a work of such simplistic genius that it takes moments to realise how it makes complete sense and that it is possible to take Pinter off the stage and potentially create something more lacerating and powerful than the original.
Punchdrunk lacks the narrative clarity of Pinter but instead they have a special talent for recreating place. Every room of a Punchdrunk production is a treasure-trove of immersion. Pulling open drawers reveal material that adds texture to what you are watching but in a way that means that you don’t have to pull open the drawer in order to understand the play. This allows the audience to genuinely take ownership over how ‘their’ narrative unfolds, and deciding on their own level of engagement with the concept.
In The Beginning Was The End falls between both stools. There is no particular sense that the location has been chosen for any particular reason other than it was available. The rooms you are in are just rooms. They have no greater purpose and they don’t radiate a sense of history that adds depth to any narrative you may have managed to locate.
Despite describing the audience’s involvement as a ‘journey’, it is effectively a ‘journey’ in the way that a ghost train ride at a theme park is a ‘journey’. Punchdrunk’s great achievement is creating performances that can be viewed in any order and are performed in spaces that help to facilitate this but here, whilst free to walk around rooms, it still manages to feel completely linear. Locked rooms abound and once you pass one section there is no sense that you can jump ahead and then return.
Perhaps the most problematic element of the whole production is the amount of dead space. Site-specific pieces only work when you are not pulled out of the moment by a jarring element of the everyday. Punchdrunk creates a complete sense of whole and are extremely smart in blocking of anything that takes away from the period. Decisions may need to be made for budgetary reasons but the production is full of moments that remind you of exactly where you are. It is not hard to opening a door to discover an undergrad desperately cramming for finals.
Given the plaudits for ‘The Rest is Silence’ it is clear that dreamthinkspeak are capable of interesting and dynamic multimedia projects that critically engage in famous texts to deliver new ways of thinking, however it is equally clear from ‘In The Beginning Was The End’ that dreamthinkspeak need to spend a lot less time thinking they are smartest guys in the room and a lot more time bothering to find ways of engaging the audience into thinking they are smartest guys in the room.