At a basic level, anyone who has thrown – or been tempted to throw – a technical gadget across the room will appreciate the humour in dreamthinkspeak’s new piece of site-specific theatre. Director Tristan Sharps and his company have opened up a warren of tunnels and disused laboratories beneath Somerset House and King’s College to house a quizzical promenade piece about the nature of progress.
Audience members can wander at will, spending as much time or as little as they please in the nooks and corridors of this atmospheric space. They can poke around in drawers full of screws and tools, flick through defunct manuals rendered obsolete by the rapid pace of technological change (my favourite was the Acorn Atom Magic Book, a 1981 guide to programming computer games) and observe spectral white-coated scientists as they potter on, oblivious to their own redundancy. Moving on, into the gleaming white laboratories of Fusion International, a fictitious global company, they can relish the absurd struggles of beaming representatives to demonstrate new and completely unnecessary household gizmos. Delightfully, these gadgets actually work – or rather they do until they develop that familiar resistance to human command and whizz off in unpredictable directions.
But mixed in with the sheer wackiness of the event is a deeper vein of melancholy and concern. The piece was inspired by the Leonardo da Vinci drawing “A Cloudburst of Material Possessions” and running through it is an implied critique of the way human creativity has become entangled with technological innovation, materialism and consumer demand. It would be unfair to describe exactly what happens during the show, but there is one unforgettable scenario in which the timid employees of Fusion International tear themselves away from writing anodyne letters to complaining customers and stage a quiet rebellion. There is a beauty in the way they conduct their mutiny that recalls the piece’s debt to da Vinci, but there is also a sad yearning in it. And as you walk on, through the scenarios and installations, there is a cumulative sense of despair at the road that human beings are travelling.
Some of it is pretty opaque and you have to be inclined to dig out what meaning you will. But this surreal, sometimes beautiful Alice in Wonderland journey beneath the architectural splendour of Somerset House encourages you to muse on where we are heading and whether we can pause and ask what progress really means.