The Desire Machine Leaves Much To Be Desired

By Londonist Last edited 34 months ago
The Desire Machine Leaves Much To Be Desired ★★☆☆☆ 2

Photo courtesy of Arbonauts

Londonist Rating: ★★☆☆☆

You’d be hard pushed to find a more uniquely atmospheric performance space than the Brunel Tunnel Shaft. Once the grand entrance hall to the famous Thames Tunnel, this deep, cylindrical cavern could lend a mysterious allure to even the flattest production. Indeed, the dark, dank spectacle of the place is invariably worth the ticket price alone.

This, perhaps, is one of several problems with the new piece by site-specific theatre-makers-cum-performance artists Arbonauts: they simply fail to live up to the moody, history-soaked promise of their surroundings.

After crawling through a tiny passageway and descending the shaft’s makeshift scaffolding staircase, we are met with a tall structure that spirals up through the middle of the space. It is here, on a small revolving stage, accompanied by a drone soundtrack, that a small team of performers enact a surreal and sinister piece that is part dance, part installation and part theatre. It is never, however, more than the sum of these parts.

Nor is it a particularly effective use of the space. The soundtrack reverberates satisfactorily around the venue, and it is obvious the zoetrope-style structure has been designed to fit its location, but there is a frustrating sense that the company could have made more of their unique location. The potential of the venue is immense, but Arbonauts seem strangely reluctant to really explore this.

This sense of reluctance — of peculiar, self-imposed limitations — runs through much of The Desire Machine. A fuller score, for example, could have brought lagging moments of the piece to life; and more imaginative use of lighting and stage effects could have greatly enhanced the visual spectacle. The programme notes warn us not to try and understand the production, stressing that “the performance is not driven by narrative or characters in any way”. And that’s fine, but we at least need to be moved or provoked. As it is, we’re more bored than awed.

Things improve gradually as the hour-long piece evolves, and there are moments towards the end when it threatens to become the “visceral, provocative work” it is billed as (while hinting at what we suspect is the company’s own greater potential). But then it is over, abruptly cut short in underwhelming fashion, never having managed to engage or excite as much as it should have. It is intriguing, yes, but never the compelling spectacle it seeks to be. And, perhaps most strikingly, it is markedly less interesting than the tunnel shaft itself.

The Desire Machine is on at the Brunel Tunnel Shaft, Rotherhithe, until 25 July. Tickets £25 (£15 concessions) + booking fee. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

By Dan Frost

Last Updated 16 July 2015

gut club

Some jurnos seem to think the pun is mightier than the pen, click bait.


very, very disappointing show indeed.

gut club

Dr Michael Petry (Artist, curator and author, director of MOCA London) shares his thoughts:

Heather Johns

I found the Desire Machine atmospheric athletic and absorbing. We entered the throbbing shaft of delights and were not dissapointed


I loved it. Climbing through the four foot passage and emerging into such a historic and atmospheric space, to be confronted by the Machine in all its brutal glory was only part of the experience for me. I got the sense that it was a work in progress - at the beginning of its journey - and am intrigued by what happens next with it.


Its a shame Frost didn't enjoy the show, but he certainly doesn't speak for me when he speaks of 'we'. Having lived in London for 10 years, i was finally tempted to visit the Brunel Tunnel Shaft by The Desire Machine. I felt the performance was a perfect marriage of a haunting and historical site and the unique, dark and sensually suffocating vision of Arbonauts. Various choreographers came to mind - Bausch and Dubois for example, but unlike seated, theatre performances, we were a part of this, up close and personal, encaged deep within what felt like a paranoid and deeply disturbed human mind.