Helen Galliano and Dimitri Launder founded the Arbonouts as a multi-media performance company that makes site-specific works. Their new production The Dream Machine takes the audience 10 meters under the Rotherhithe sidewalk at the entrance to the Brunel Tunnel.
The tunnel itself was called the 8th wonder of the world at the time of its opening in 1843, due to its complex engineering originally designed by Marc Brunel and further enhanced and made functional by his far more famous son Isambard Kingdom. The people of the day swarmed into the deep hole paying a pittance to gawk at the beauty of the brickwork and purchase sweets, flowers, and sex. So many archways filled the long shaft that it was an easy place to find some semblance of privacy in a world where little existed. Huge expensive dinners were even held down under. Because the project overran by nearly 15 years, the private company that built it ran out of money to add large circular roads at either end, that would have allowed the tunnel to take road traffic - its original purpose.
Crossing the Thames has always been a dangerous affair, ask anyone brave enough to cycle over it today. Ferrymen could be as funny as the one in Shakespeare in Love or as irritating as the driver of a lost Uber cab who has to ask you for directions to Peckham. Soon another irritating Thames crossing might scar the river in the form of the private green bridge. It will gobble up public space and charge people to pass over it for little or no public gain. I hope like Marc Brunel they too go bankrupt. By contrast, after initial structural wobbles the new bridge that joins the Tate to St Pauls is free and adds to the joy of being a Londoner.
So what have the Arbonouts done in what was a very public private space? You enter by a very small door (like Alice in Wonderland) stooping down to crawl through a dark space where the room explodes into a vast darkness. The room is only the top of the entrance to the tunnels. This is because the actual tunnels were sold in 1865 to the East London Railway Company which finally took passengers back and forth on steam engines. Today that same space is owned by London Transport and trains run under the feet of the audience.
Not that we could hear them, for the sound scape is wonderfully loud and physical. The music throbs as we enter, and the reverb in the space is incredible. For me this was the highlight of the performance. Very few modern scores for theatre or installation work for me, but the one by composers Alex Nikiporenko, Louise Drewett and sound artist Lee Berwick certainly did. The costumes by Rachel Taylor were either functional (tight leotards with extra bits) or extravagant. One performer wore a huge ruffled skirt, and another a black latex top and jodhpurs that could have come straight off a McQueen runway. The lighting by Marty Langthorne was another highlight for such a small company. He used only a few white spots, but they were carefully dimmed to create a dream-like space. The performance started with a white clad woman suspended in the air spinning about, and the lighting made it look like she was truly floating above us, and the end sequence is as sophisticated a use of strobes as I have seen.
The directors have stated that they have used a secret text as a base for what is really a non-narrative visual performance (think Balanchine) that works as a whole. I kept thinking that the sole male dancer was a stand in for the original Jason, and that the confrontations he had with the four women followed the classical tale (the women of Lemnos all murdered their husbands, and Medea falls in love with Jason only to be cruelly discarded). Equally I could not help think of the DREAMACHINE devised by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, as the very fine performers continually spun around and climbed up and down the central spinning suspended platform. The only thing that lets the performance down is the choreography. Early on we hear a woman on the soundtrack say 'I think I have seen this before' and I felt the same. I have seen similar dance/physical theatre done much better by DV8 and would rather have seen other body types at play. Seeing five sleek dancers makes us view the performance mainly as dance, and then we start to evaluate it through this frame, which is what the directors obviously do not want. That said, visually it works, and it is a terrific spectacle, with a great set by Carl Robertshaw, in a wonderful space that so many Londoners never see or even know about.
I heard a staid looking gent say to his female companion in sensible shoes (no heels are allowed and you will need a jacket) that even though he only came to see the structure he was overwhelmed by the performance, not bad for a dream, or a journey underground.
The Dream Machine at
The Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, London, SE16 4LF
Rotherhithe (2 minute walk) and Canada Water (10 - 15 minute walk)
Performances at 8pm until July 25th
All images by Ludovie des Cognets
Courtesy of the Arbonauts