Theatre: A potholer's guide to time and space

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The Independent Culture
THE VENUE for so many prosaic scenarios (bodies hurled under trains, bomb-scares, the malodorous intimacies of the rush-hour), the London Underground has also haunted the imagination of poets. Both TS Eliot in Four Quartets and Derek Walcott in his stage version of The Odyssey have used the Underground as an analogue of the classical Underworld. But then again, you don't need to be a genius to feel that this location offers a pretty graphic sneak preview of hell.

Now, though, if you descend 30 metres below The Strand to the murky, labyrinthine innards of a disused tube station, you will find that the Underground has been commandeered for somewhat less gloomy reflections. A collaboration between the writer, John Berger, and Theatre de Complicite director, Simon McBurney, The Vertical Line takes you on an imaginary journey backwards in time, and downwards in space, to the Chauvet cave in France. It was here, in 1995, that paintings of animals were discovered which, dating back 32,000 years, constitute the oldest man-made images yet found.

A spooky combination of intrepid potholing and reverberating meditations on time and art, this powerful experience aims to make us feel the force of the past's immensity. A typical observation is that as we travel backwards, the units for measuring time grow larger and larger, just as, in the opposite direction, units of money burgeon through inflation. The evening begins with saturation bombardments by televisual images and ends in a tunnel of palpably dense darkness where we join in the attempt to recapture what it must have been like to break the vacuum seal on these ur-paintings, momentously collapsing the concepts of "then" and "now".

In between, chivvied by London Transport safety staff understandably keen that no one breaks their neck, the journey takes in a huge circular shaft where spectral images of Berger lecturing on the astonishingly ageless Egyptian funerary portraits from Fayum are projected on the bleak wall. It also includes a sequence where you lie on a line of mattresses on a defunct platform, like figures in a Henry Moore evocation of the Blitz, and look up at lonely cloudscapes which are shifting across the barrel-vaulting while Berger, aping the tones of a foreign correspondent, offers a front-line report on Corsica 3,000BC.

Alongside the attempt to deepen our sense of historical duration and of the continuity between the unimaginably distant past and the present tense of this event, the main philosophical point would seem to be that it is naive to call the art of the cave painters "primitive". "The need to make images did not precede the talent for doing so," declares Berger. Allied to this assertion is the more obscure notion that what gives the Fayum portraits and the animal paintings their special time-transcending power is that the normal direction of looking was reversed. It was the artists who submitted to being looked at by their subjects and so, by some hazy peculiar logic, the pictures are like self-portraits. An idea perhaps not so much half- baked as over-baked.

All five remaining shows are, alas, sold out, but the curious can follow the proceedings live on the Internet at: A piquant conjunction of the ancient and modern.

Paul Taylor

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper