What is the future of technology-obsessed man? In broad brushstrokes, that's the big question the latest site-specific production from art and theatre company Dreamthinkspeak is asking.
Taking over little-seen spaces, abandoned rooms and bowels of that most handsome of London's Thameside buildings, Somerset House, it would be worth the price of admission alone just to wander free poking your nose into every fascinating dusty nook and cranny. But then the show starts and boy, it's breathtaking.
Billed as inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's obsession with mechanical invention and the ramifications for humanity, as well as the Book of Revelations and John the Baptist, it uses live performance, video, models and installations on a sprawling scale that requires little more from the observer than leaving your inhibitions at the door and turning your curiosity and sense of wonder up to 11.
I can't and won't give too much away, as it would ruin it. Yes, it's a kind of sci-fi dystopian vision, but it's far more charming, funny and moving than that sounds. Da Vinci meets Baudrillard meets Will Lunn meets Asimov. With nudity. And robots.
It's also more immersive than interactive theatre - don't panic if you're someone, like me, who is allergic to audience participation and enforced fun. You can take part if you wish, and you do get up close and personal with the action and excellent actors, but you're so absorbed that it doesn't seem the least bit strained. It's all so believable, like a vivid dream that you really don't want to wake up from.
You're told the experience will last roughly 90 minutes, but really, you can take as long as you need and I emerged blinking into the bitter cold after around two hours. And I wished I'd stayed longer, as now I am desperately anxious that I might have missed something - so I guess I'll just have to go again.
There are rooms filled with oscillators and old machinery smelling of circuit boards, creepy corridors, a Big Brother style figure, narrative threads that converge and diverge, doors that lead to some of the most wonderful things you will ever see in your life, cul-de-sacs that lead nowhere and locked doors.
There are white-coated scientists scrawling never-ending formulae and equations while animated explaining them to you in a foreign tongue you can't quite place - little of any of the dialogue is in English, but you pick up some French here, Spanish there and German over there from the myriad performers. There are surreal films, bizarre mise en scène and heartbreaking (as well as heart-stopping) moments, but with humour throughout. You find yourself poring over abandoned files, fiddling with dials and fulminating over a lemon, all looking for clues. Often, you're quite literally left wondering what does it all mean?
Overall, 'In the Beginning Was the End' is brave, bittersweet, bonkers and beautiful. Buy your ticket now.
Tickets (via National Theatre): 020 7452 3000. On from now until 30 March somersethouse.org.uk
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