Sunday, 17 May 2009

Tunnel 228 = blimin great

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing my ever-informative Twitter feed when the Londonist mentioned something called 'Tunnel 228'. Intrigued, I clicked on the link to discover a rather garish website that seemingly belonged to a train tunnel cleaning company. At first I thought that the url was wrong, but upon further investigation I discovered that most of the links on the website were inactive, apart from one rather inconspicuous link at the foot of the page, which opened up a whole new window, urging me to 'book tickets'. But 'book tickets for what?', I wondered. A quick Google search informed me that Tunnel 228 was an experimental theatre / art project, produced jointly by the Old Vic (Kevin Spacey being the man at the creative helm) and one of the UK's most innovative performance companies, Punchdrunk, along with the input of loads of urban artists.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the urban art Cans Festival last year, which took place just round the corner (in the tunnels beneath Waterloo station), Tunnel 228 looked just up my street, so I booked a couple of tickets on the spot. Lucky I did, because once word spread about the project - which was only going to be open to the public for 15 days - the (free) tickets were all gone by the end of that day.

My slot to step through the door into the maze of underground tunnels was yesterday afternoon, and I wasn't disappointed. The space was vast, the atmosphere spooky and surreal, and there was so much to take in. After wandering around for a few minutes, I began to notice that there was some kind of almost ritualistic performance taking place, with the Punchdrunk performers working meticulously on various mechanisms and machines to ensure the safe voyage of a silver ball around the tunnels.

The show is loosely based on Fritz Lang's classic film Metropolis, but having never seen the film I chose to draw my own conclusions about what it all meant. So my interpretation was that the ball represented money, and the performers repeating the same monotonous tasks over and over reflected the thankless routines of the working classes. This was reinforced by the fact that we were all 'ordered' to wear surgical face masks at all times (removing our sense of individuality) and we were only allowed to speak in whispers. In fact, at one point one of the performers reprimanded me for speaking too loudly, and although I wasn't intimidated by the in-my-face 'sssshhhh' that I received, it really added to the idea that we had entered a dark and oppressive underground world, despite the fact that the sun was shining brightly just a few feet away outside. I was also a bit miffed as I was told to shut up just as I was making an amusing joke about having to always queue for the ladies loos as we waited in line to peak through the door to witness one of the other mini-performances.

One of my favourite moments was when I spotted a piece by the artist Slinkachu, who has gained notoriety for placing amusing miniature scenes around the streets of London. I was chuffed to bits to spot four of his tiny installations in Tunnel 228, but I'm intrigued to know whether I missed any.

By the time I'd taken everything in I was rather surprised to discover that I'd been wandering around the performance space for well over an hour. If you're lucky enough to have tickets for this then you're in for a treat, but if not, there are rumours that the show could re-surface later this year, so keep your ear to the ground. And you get a free surgical mask to boot (no swine flu for me!).

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