John Berger and Simon McBurney – The Vertical Line

Over four nights in February 1999, the writer and art historian John Berger and Theatre de Complicite’s director Simon McBurney and the actress Sandra Voe conducted an intimate journey spanning 30,000 years, inscribing a downward line through time 30 metres below central London.

Part theatrical event, part archaeological dig, The Vertical Line led visitors / participants down 122 spiral steps into the bowels of the disused Strand tube station, where a sequence of audio-visual installations culminated in a live performance on seven occasions. A fifteen minute radio version was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in June 1999.

Built at the end of the nineteenth century, the Strand Station’s two platforms serviced an under-subscribed shuttle between Holborn and Aldwych. One closed in 1907, the other in 1994: this was the same date as three French spelologists, led by Jean Marie Chauvet, first opened up what would become known as the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche gorge.

Bush House to Fayum, change at Corsica for Chauvet. Cued by sound and light, visitors explored the station’s deep walkways, tracks and tunnels: the intervention of video portraits etched by light onto shaft walls; mattresses strewn on platforms uninhabited since the Blitz; painted animals on the rock – unseen, yet glistening. We moved through these abandoned zones by instinct, guided by the ghost voices of an older man, a younger man and a woman broadcast over the tannoy; by the dead sound of George Formby, the World Service and the wind.

Eventually footsteps would seem to come from the other end of the dark tunnel ahead. “Can you hear me in the darkness?” and those same voices – John’s, Simon’s and Sandra’s – breathing by our shoulders, whispering in our ears: yet still unseen.

The publication for The Vertical Line obviously comprises the soundtrack of the work, as well,as a full transcript and images that were used in the projections in the abandoned underground station. Mimicking the direction of movement in the actual performance – vertical – the booklet inserted in the CD’s packaging reads from top to bottom. A very enjoyable project, both in real terms, and in how the the publication took shape. The former a precursor of what is now widely known as immersive theatre, the latter an attempt at transposing the experiential aspect to an entirely different format.

The project was commissioned by Artangel, the CD/book designed by Mark Diaper.

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