Cart Macabre, Old Vic Tunnels, London
Hold on to your stomachs – the ghost train gets a surreal makeover
Sunday 12 December 2010
It is not unknown for actors to corpse – but for the entire audience to cark it?
Hell's Half Acre, a recent installation in these same Old Vic Tunnels, a dark, damp cavern beneath Waterloo Station, focused on Dante's Divine Comedy. Now the performance collective Living Structure brings that Hell fully to life in Cart Macabre, fulfilling a desire for radical-art interactions that companies such as Punchdrunk have been implanting in our consciousness for the past 10 years or more.
In a sterile waiting-room, with body tags placed around our necks, we are asked to give up our earthly belongings before being laid out on trolleys and wheeled into pitch blackness. With the "macabre" of the title in mind, the sound of waves crashing, combined with the disorienting dark, conjures an impression of the Styx, while the hands that guide us to one of eight four-seater carts are surely those of Charon.
It is here that the fun really begins, as the carts are pushed around the cavernous space, which is rendered all the more atmospheric by the trundling of mainline trains overhead. A fairground-ride element is introduced as the cart is rocked as though balanced on a seesaw, but far more effective are the stations where, variously, videos, animations, acts of puppetry, haunting melodies and live theatre play out through slits in the darkness that open suddenly and shockingly before your eyes (and occasionally behind your head).
When left in the dark, one naturally builds a storyline from what one can see. And so, a puppet moth being drawn to a flame is surely symbolic of the evanescence of life. And when a filmed heart (a real one, presumably not human) is ripped apart by disembodied hands, then restored to its former shape, it suggests the broken lives of those left behind, which are gently repaired through time.
And there is time enough to construct that elaborate narrative. While there are scares enough in this nightmarish ride through the afterlife, there are also distractingly long intervals between acts. What's more, there seems to be an awful lot of clanking and dropping of iron pipes in purgatory.
Still, death is meant to be for eternity, and as an exercise in immersive theatre, Cart Macabre delivers. While not quite heart-stopping – though the dancers in tribal masks who prod and poke at the audience serve their uncomplicated purpose of eliciting a few screams – one would need an iron constitution not to leave the experience more than a little shaken.
To 22 Dec (0844 871 7628, £14)
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