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A CurtainUp>London Review

By Brian Clover

Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle and mighty opium!
-- Thomas de Quincy 1785 -1859 The Pains of Opium

(Image from Antenna Theater)
Euphorium is a multi-media piece currently playing in the Undercroft of London's Roundhouse. It was created by Chris Hardman of the Antenna Theater of Sausalito. Antenna describe Euphorium as "an hallucinogenic trip through Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium-infused fantasia, Kubla Khan".

To enjoy this promising experience you buy your ticket at the counter then pass through a curtained archway into a subduedly lit bar where a very relaxed barman invites you to wait for the Opium Goddess to guide you into the inner sanctum. Here you are given a head set which is your guide and auditory presenter. You enter a darkened chamber, sit in a chair, close your eyes and revolve into Coleridge's dreamworld. You do this alone: the experience is yours.

A helmet which refracts and distorts images is placed over your head and you proceed slowly along corridors, hearing sounds, music and a fractured cubist version of Coleridge's poem. As you look through the helmet you see visions timed to match the words. In time you return to the sanctum and are invited to watch an installation based on extracts from Thomas de Quincy, English Literature's other famous opium-addict-while-it-was-still-legal. This all takes 40 or so minutes.

The idea is a good one. What we have is basically the fairground ghost train ride where ghouls, gorgons and skeleton grannies in rocking chairs jump out at you from the dark, arousing Aristotle's twin emotions of terror and pity (pity for yourself for having paid to be thus terrorised). The problem is in the execution.

For a start, the Opium Goddess is frankly a bit of a let-down. Of course, Opium Goddess is very hard billing to live up to anyway, but when she appears she's really just a pleasant young woman in a long gown. So we're not really talking deities here, are we? The experience begins to seem over-sold, unless it's mean to be ironic, which I increasingly doubt. Then the chair that plunges you into the dreamworld jerks and shudders like the rotating teacups for toddlers in Disneyland. Once on foot through the rather wonderful subterranean corridors of the undercroft you are guided by a corrugated plastic handrail, which is effective, but a little too obviously industrial to sustain the Romantic illusion. You are also conscious of the full helmet you are now wearing: it's not exactly uncomfortable but you can't help wondering if you look like Bottom translated into an ass.

Again, these effects could be meant to achieve a Brechtian alienation from the buzzing text, but that doesn't really seem likely since Antenna claims to convey a sense of euphoria, a state of extreme elation. In practice I was too conscious of where my feet were going to experience anything like elation. Perhaps that is why Antenna added the second part, where you recline on a couch in an opium den and listen to extracts describing De Quincy's hallunications. With their progression from rapt meditation, through exoticism and eroticism to nightmare these parallel the themes of the Coleridge piece, but in a more relaxed fashion. But there are problems here too. Now, I have never been to an opium den (honest!) but I doubt the couches are made of bare hard wood. Nor do I think the dreams of the pipe-smokers are disturbed by the bright lights of exit signs and corridors.

These details of execution do work against the achievement of euphoria, but there are other problems. You may find the accompanying images more acceptable than I did. There is always going to be a problem finding suitable graphics for word painting, at which both Coleridge and De Quincy excel, but I found both sets a little crude, clich├ęd and limiting rather than mind-expanding.

In the end I wonder if Antenna really grasp the point of Coleridge's poem, which is arguably a sad poem about the loss of euphoric joy rather than a celebration of its presence. Kubla Khan is also too sexually energised and troubled to be simply ecstatic. But I could be missing something here and you may well disagree.

So if you do, go along, enjoy yourself and say hi to the Opium Goddess for me. But if Antenna's next ecstatic poetic installation is Rimbaud's Bateau Ivre in the sewers of Paris, I may well give it a miss.

Conceived by Chris Hardman

Designed by Robert Jones
Sound Design: David Torgerson
Voices: Erik Bauersfeld, Jodi Burke, Peter Holmes, John Joss, Louise Page, Tanya Napier, Sarah Roberts, Dee Jones
Production Manager: Sean Horton
Running time: 40 minutes
Box Office: 020 7478 0151
Booking to 26th January 2003
Wednesday to Friday, 6pm to 10:30pm, Saturday 3pm to 10:30pm, Sunday 3pm to 6pm
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 30th October 2002 performance at the Undercroft, The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 (Tube Stations: Camden Town/Chalk Farm)
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