It's mid-spring but bitterly cold. From the outside, the old Co-op building in Brighton looks as boarded up and unloved as it has been since 2007, when the store closed. But inside, despite sub-zero temperatures, this disused building is slowly stirring, under the watchful eye of Tristan Sharps.
- Before I Sleep
- by dreamthinkspeak
- Brighton Festival
- Until 23 May
- Box office:
01273 709 709
- See details
"This," says Sharps, waving his arm around expansively, "is going to be a ballroom." I stare at the pock-marked walls and the dirty floor of a dull, squat room that smells of sadness, abandonment and damp. It's hard to believe that this space will shortly be alive with candlelight, music and laughter.
"You," I say, "are an optimist." Sharps grins. "I have to be," he says.
Sharps is the artistic director of dreamthinkspeak, a site-specific theatre company that has worked in buildings across the world, creating remarkable walk-through shows that incorporate installation, film and model landscapes into live performance. Every dreamthinkspeak show is like a little haunting, as if the ghostly journey through a building is not just a physical experience but a trip into the self.
Sharps can hardly contain his enthusiasm for the building as he shows me around, looking past the decay and pointing out the craftsmanship in the stair rails or window panels. Carpenters are hard at work; an entire floor has been covered in mulch, as if something may take root.
This empty shop, with its sprouting mushrooms and hanging ceiling tiles, doesn't seem the most promising of theatre venues. But this is where dreamthinkspeak's Before I Sleep will be staged. The production is inspired by Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard – a story about an old way of life being swept aside, as the debt-laden estate of the Ranevsky family is sold to Lopakhin, the son of a peasant who used to work for the family. Now an entrepreneur, Lopakhin plans to level the family's beloved orchard and build holiday homes on it.
Sharps has a knack for seeing promise where others see only neglect. Creating work that owes as much to architecture as it does to theatre, dreamthinkspeak have spent the last eight years staging projects abroad, including Don't Look Back, a piece inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that has played everywhere from an old hotel in Kuala Lumpur to a disused paper factory in Moscow.
"I always love the moment when I'm given the keys to a building," says Sharps. "Whether it's a cathedral or an old department store. I want to respond to it in such a way that the audience will feel what they've experienced couldn't have happened anywhere else. I don't want to smother the building. I want to show it off."
Such has been the demand for the company's work worldwide that, before he started on Before I Sleep, the Brighton-based Sharps had spent only 23 nights of the previous nine months in his own house. So this show is a sort of a homecoming: Sharps lives just around the corner from the Co-op building, bought his fridge there, and, like many local people, mourned its passing.
"Dreamthinkspeak has often been invited to make work as part of regeneration schemes. It's made me think. What does it really mean for people and communities? Change can be good, but too often regeneration is only talked about in monetary terms. I'm not a religious person, but I do wonder why we don't talk about the spiritual aspects of regeneration – and how, while it might bring financial benefits to a place, often as much is destroyed as is gained." It's an observation that finds new life in Chekhov's play.
But I'm surprised Sharps has time to think at all. As we speak, he's working 18-hour days, racing to transform the building for a show that will hinge on Chekhov's character Firs, a serf who, despite being freed, has spent his life in the service of the Ranevskys, and who, at the end of the play, is glimpsed alone in the closed-up house, as the sound of the first trees being cut down is heard.
It is Firs who the audience will follow as he takes a century to serve coffee. The drinks are ordered by the Ranevskys in the first act; but, in this reimagining, Firs is seen traversing snowy landscapes and forests on a journey into our modern world. Wandering where they wish, audiences will be able to peer through windows and come face to face with characters from Chekhov's play; images seen in one part of the building, meanwhile, will be reflected back in others, slightly skewed. It sounds like the theatrical equivalent of Russian dolls.
"Nothing happens for no reason," says Sharps. "It's all carefully worked out, after a huge amount of simmering and editing. When I began thinking about this piece, I thought it would incorporate a century of Russian history: from the revolution, through Chernobyl, to the Beslan school siege. But that's all gone. The ideas don't get smaller; they just shift. I'm a great believer that, in the end, the show finds itself – the right things end up in the right place in the right building."