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Apocalypse — now in a wing of Somerset House

08 March 2013

Peter Graystone enjoys his multisensory Revelation experience


FOR about a decade, the acclaimed company Dreamthinkspeak have been changing expectations of what theatre can do to body and soul. They provide multisensory experiences in venues that look nothing like theatres. In Liverpool Cathedral, they reimagined Dante's Divine Comedy by taking us on a journey from dank cellars to exhilarating spires. The Rest Is Silence was a revelatory staging of Hamlet, the audience standing trapped among glass cabinets in which the claustrophobic court of Elsinore was conjured in film and live action.

Now the director Tristan Sharps turns his teeming imagination to the Revelation of St John. In The Beginning Was The End, although too uneven in tone to be perfect, creates images of a frightening future that are as unforgettable as the grotesque visions in the final book of the Bible. And, like Revelation, it demands that we change or face the consequences.

The production takes place in a wing of Somerset House never normally seen by the public. Audience members are admitted a few at a time, and wander from room to room, stumbling on artworks, films, and live drama. In the dimly lit bowels of the building, scientists are oblivious of us as they obsess over chalky equations, Leonardo da Vinci's diagrams, or the physical properties of lemons. Pushing open doors, not knowing who or what lies behind them, becomes genuinely scary.

Suddenly, we are swept into the bright perfection of a global corporation's open day. The company produces ingenious gadgets that cocoon the wealthy against anything undesirable or emotionally challenging. It is a comically appealing vision of technological comfort.

Upstairs, however, away from the whitewashed rooms and consciences of the open day, we discover the cost to human lives of creating this world. Berated employees type never-ending replies to complaints until they reach breaking-point. The exhausted planet begins to respond in unpredictable ways. Meetings take place between terrified people asking what can be done to repair their ruined livelihoods. And, in a scene that would be beautiful were it not so frightful, men tumble to suicidal deaths outside the windows in agonised slow motion.

Putting a horrifying apocalypse alongside scenes of satirical humour means that the production never coheres as the visions of Revelation do. But images from the Bible recur throughout the 90 minutes it takes to walk through. A ranting John the Baptist repeatedly warns us to change. Workers refuse to comply with a system that strips them of dignity, and protest as naked as Isaiah. And, as a new Flood engulfs humanity, some are swept away, some buy their way out of difficulty, and some must learn how to live underwater. An alternative Eden, sweet with the scent of lemons, is our last, faltering hope.

In The Beginning Was The End runs at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 30 March. Tickets are booked through the National Theatre box office and website (click on "Other venues"). Phone 020 7452 3000. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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