Built in the midst of Britain's Sixties flush of post-colonial munificence, the Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park was designed as the home of the eponymous educational charity and as a permanent exhibition for all things related to Britain's former empire. Recognised for its distinctive parabaloid roof, the building is one of the most striking of its period, but as the Commonwealth gradually declined in importance, the Institute's popularity and purpose waned, and it eventually closed in 2000 after the FCO cut its funding. Happily, after being at risk of demolition, it has been saved and will re-open in a few years time as the new home for the Design Museum, but in its current, dilapidated, state, it makes the perfect setting for an experimental theatrical production.
Common Sounds: Touching The Void, part of Kensington & Chelsea's InTRANSIT festival, is an "audio-kinetic adventure" produced by various dance, theatre, art and orchestral groups, including Rambert, the London Contemporary Orchestra, the Neofuturist Collective and others. Trying to scrutinise what the performance may bring is tricky. The press release is lost in its own verbiage: a "journey through a hinterland of history, relics and memories" doesn't really offer many clues on what to expect. Without divulging too much, Touching The Void incorporates art installation, dance, and interactive theatre (patrons who prefer to remain outside the fourth wall should be wary) into an engaging, though not entirely coherent, experience. Audience members are led all over the building, and on the press preview at least, allowed to explore at their leisure, while the performances coalesce around them and, occasionally, involve them. Most of the action takes place in the Institute's main gallery, a truly extraordinary space, with sweeping columns and concrete supports that swoon up to a ceiling pinnacle through which daylight seeps.
The show itself is mixed: some parts work well, others not so, and overall the effect is more punch-tipsy than Punchdrunk, but certain sequences stand out, particularly when a dozen or so audience members are entreated to don boiler suits and perform in a madcap piece of choreography. The sound design throughout is excellent, and in conjunction with the moody lighting help to create a dramatic atmosphere, one that only grows as we are led through the bowels of the building into a darkened auditorium to hear a minimalist operatic performance.
Whether a fan of immersive theatre or interested in the rare chance to poke around a gorgeous architectural beauty, Touching The Void is likely to appeal.
Common Sounds: Touching The Void is on from 15th - 17th July, several performances each day. Tickets £18.50 (£11 concession) on the Friday, where there will be a concert performance, and £12.50 (£7.50) on Saturday and Sunday. The Commonwealth Institute is in W8; nearest station is High Street Kensington.
All photographs by the author unless otherwise stated.