John Berger / Simon McBurney

The Vertical Line

The disused Strand tube station, London
04 February 1999 - 07 February 1999

Over four nights, the writer and art historian John Berger and Theatre de Complicite’s director Simon McBurney were accompanied by actress Sandra Voe on an intimate journey through 30,000 years. Performances of The Vertical Line began 30 metres below the streets of central London at the disused Strand tube station on the line which ran between Holborn and Aldwych. 

Part theatrical event, part archaeological dig, The Vertical Line was an oratorio of faces, voices, darkness and light; a unique excavation took a small audience down 122 spiral steps into the bowels of the disused station, where a sequence of audio-visual installations culminated in a live performance.

Available here are five recordings, which combine audio from the performances with archival radio material to evoke a little of what was encountered by the audience. These tracks were originally released in CD format with an accompanying booklet in 2000. A fifteen minute radio version was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in June 1999.


Image: The ceramic tiled exterior of the disused Strand tube station, the setting for The Vertical Line (1999) by John Berger and Simon McBurney. Photograph: Geraint Lewis

Part One: Myahko Styelit Da Zhostko Spat'

5 minutes 3 seconds
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Part One: Myahko Styelit Da Zhostko Spat' 

This section of the audio, introduces us to the setting of The Vertical Line, touching on elements covered in depth in the subsequent recordings.

Myahko styelit da zhostko spat'

You make a soft bed said the Russian grandmother and then sleeping on it, it is hard.

Where are you?

In a vertical line, we are 30 metres below London, in the abandoned Aldwych underground station.

Bush House and the BBC are up there.

Where are you?

Read the complete transcript here 


Part One: Myahko Styelit Da Zhostko Spat’ is also available to stream or download from Soundcloud.


Image: The exterior of Bush House, as mentioned in Part One: Myahko Styelit Da Zhostko Spat',  The Vertical Line (1999) by John Berger and Simon McBurney. Photograph: Geraint Lewis 

Part Two: Oh My Beloved, How Sweet It Is

8 minutes 7 seconds
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Part Two: Oh My Beloved, How Sweet It Is

This section of the audio begins the journey deeper into the disused Strand station and explores the acts of looking behind the creation of a Fayum portrait.

Oh my beloved
how sweet it is
to go down
and bathe in the pool
before your eyes
letting you see how
my drenched linen dress
clings married
to my body
Come, look at me.

Read the complete transcript here


Oh My Beloved, How Sweet It Is is also available to stream or download from Soundcloud.


Image: Portrait of Fayum. Photograph: Courtesy of The British Museum

Part Three: Half A Century Ago, I Was Wondering

5 minutes 55 seconds
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Part Three: Half A Century Ago, I Was Wondering

Part three travels further into the tunnel and considers the origins of perspective, our understanding of time and a small stone that is 450 million years old.

Half a century ago I was wondering and I was wondering for months, at a time in history when a month sometimes seemed as long as a decade, because not a single thing about the future was certain, I was wondering about who looks at who? The fundamental question about painting. Who looks at who? At that time I was at an art school at the other end of this tunnel.

Read the complete transcript here


Half A Century Ago, I Was Wondering is also available to stream or download from Soundcloud.


Image: John Berger and Simon McBurney seen from behind walking down a railway track in a darkened tunnel. Production image from The Vertical Line (1999). Photograph: Geraint Lewis

Part Four: I've Just Put the Motorbike on its Stand

6 minutes 10 seconds
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Part Four: I’ve Just Put the Motorbike on its Stand

Part four of the audio is currently unavailable, we hope to make it available here soon.

I’ve just put the motorbike on its stand and here I am in Corsica. There’s a hell of a gale blowing but there’s summer sunshine on the sea over there and on the rocks. It’s a long way from your platform. It was a bit hard holding the bike on the road in this wind although she’s a heavy bike. But I made it. And everywhere I’m looking, stones in the sunshine and the wind whistling round them. It’s a long way away. And it’s 3000 BC.

Read the complete transcript here


Image: A large menhir (an upright stone erected in prehistoric times) is in the foreground of a green field, where further menhirs can be seen in the background. Photograph: Courtesy of The Environmental Picture Library/David Dennis

Part Five: Can You Hear Me, in the Darkness?

13 minutes 36 seconds
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Part Five: Can You Hear Me, in the Darkness?

The final part of the audio takes listeners from a disused underground line to fantasic discoveries in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche, France.

It is the 18th of December 1994 and in the chilly air of a winter’s evening, in a gorge of the river Ardèche in France, three French speleologists have been crawling through a tunnel 30 inches high and 10 inches wide. Claustrophobia is a question of context. They have been crawling for a long while. And suddenly they feel a slight breeze. Do you? Can you feel it? Blowing, very soft?

Read the complete transcript here


Can You Hear Me, in the Darkness? is also available to stream or download from Soundcloud.


Image: A blurred John Berger and Simon McBurney climb the steps taken in the disused Strand tube station where The Vertical Line (1999) was performed. Photograph: Geraint Lewis

Inner City

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Inner City

Inner City explored the interface of the city and the word in both its spoken and written forms. It will encourage writes and artists to excavate a range of urban places and contemplate the changing nature of city environments and the counterpoint between narrative and place; between language and location.

Writers and thinkers of all kinds — from architectural and social historians and urban geographers to scientists, philosophers, poets and novelists — have been invited to consider different aspects of the inner city, and work with us to define an appropriate form for the expression of their ideas, spoken or written, live or recorded.

A significant opportunity to speak to new audiences in new ways, Inner City builds on the current appetite for new thinking across art forms and relocates it in the many centers of the metropolis — in the places we think we know,  as well as the places that elude us.

Projects range from the re-invention of a traditional form of address (the lantern lecture; the walking tour) to pre-recorded audio guides for particular places by artists; the urban environment viewed as a historical network of personal experience, pathways and relocollections; an A-Z of the city's insides.

Surface Noise

The Art of Legislation

The Vertical Line

Rodinsky's Whitechapel

The Missing Voice (Case Study B) 

 

Audio CD

Five tracks created using material from The Vertical Line
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The Vertical Line

This item is available to view in our archive. Book a research visit.

This audio CD features tracks recorded during the perfromances of The Vertical Line, in February 1999. Voiced by John Berger, Simon McBurney and Sandra Voe it takes listeners on a journey through time and rock, discussing the acts of looking behind the creation of menhirs, Fayum portraits and paintings discovered in the Chauvet cave.

This CD is part of Artangel’s series of publications, Artangel Afterlives, and was produced by Artangel and Theatre de Complicite in association with Somethin’Else.

  • Audio CD accompanied by 40 page colour booklet bound into digipak
  • Radio broadcast fragments used with permission from the BBC
  • Voices: John Berger, Sandra Voe, Simon McBurney
  • Producer: Artangel, Somethin’ Else, Theatre De Complicite
  • Sound: Paul Bennun
  • Design: Mark Diaper
  • Production coordination: Gerrie van Noord
  • Packaging: Impac, London
  • CD Reproduction: Audio Services
  • ISBN 1-902201-08-6

Press

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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. – Paul Taylor

Selected Press

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 images created by man 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. – Paul Taylor, The Independent, 6 February 1999


There have been many theories about the Chauvet paintings, some academics have declared that the paintings were simply a registration system for food killed; others that they were a crucial part of rituals or initiation ceremonies. McBurney and Berger’s starting point is that we know nothing at all about them, and that a little knowledge is far more dangerous than no knowledge at all. – Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, 3rd February 1999


This 40-minute CD, accompanied by an illustrated booklet that includes a transcript, lets you follow the journey in your own home, with voices whispering in your ears – brittle-toned Berger, McBurney edgy and carressive, crisp and soothing actress Sandra Voe. [...] The Vertical Line burrows down into buried, sheltering humanity, into lost love, into images of the dead who are waiting to keep the living company. It might have become a sentimental exercise, but Berger and McBurney usefully quote a poem about the dead: ‘They’re sarcastic now, they ask questions.’ – Plays International, March 2000

 

About the Artists

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John Berger

John Berger is widely known as a story-teller, play­wright and essayist. His many books, innovative in form and far-reaching in their historical and political insight, include the Booker Prize-winning novel G and imaginative documentary work such as A Seventh Man and A Fortunate Man. Amongst. his outstanding studies of art and photography are Another Way of Telling, The Success and Failure of Picasso and Ways of Seeing.

Simon McBurney

Simon McBurney is Co-founder and Artistic Director of Theatre de Complicite. Since 1983 he has devised, directed and acted in 24 productions with the Company, including The Street of Crocodiles, The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, Out of a house walked a man..., The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Chairs and Mnemonic. Winner of numerous international awards as both actor and director, Simon has also performed in radio and television. Films include: Kalka, Tom and Viv, Being Human, Mesmer,The Ogre, Cousin Bette and most recently Onegin.

filer_public_thumbnails/filer_public/0a/21/0a21a47b-52a9-4d3d-8f2f-bf7d751a6f01/1999tvl_04.jpg__300x99999_q85_subsampling-2.jpg

Images: John Berger and Simon McBurney in the disused Strand tube station, standing on a railway track in a darkened tunnel. Production image from The Vertical Line (1999) (left); Portrait of the artists (above). Photographs: Geraint Lewis

Production Credits

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Production Credits

Producer — Michael Morris
Production Manager — David Scholefield, Artcell
Stage Manager — John Farquhar Smith
Production Co-ordinator — Tabitha Clayson
Sound — Richard Nowell Sound
Light — Fantastic Illuminations
Video Installation — Phillip Stannard Associates
Video Footage — Egon Bunne
Sound Editor — Paul Bennun, Somethin’Else
Front of House — Lorraine Selby

With special thanks to: Guy Chapman, Chris Chinball, Anthony Moore & Academy of Media Arts Cologne, London Underground, Josh Appignanesi & Erik Rehl, Somthin’Else, Bunny. 


Image: The ceramic tiled Exit sign of the disused Strand tube station, the setting for The Vertical Line (1999) by John Berger and Simon McBurney. Photograph: Geraint Lewis

 

 

Credits

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Who made this possible?

Credits

Comissioned by Artangel as part of Inner City, a series exploring the interface of the city and the word in its many forms. Inner City encouraged writers and artists to excavate a range of urban environments and to contemplate the chnaging nature of the city and the counterpoint between narrative and place, between language and location. Produced with assistance from the National Lottery through the A4E scheme administered by the Arts Council of England and and the support of Harry Handelsman. Funders and collaborators: Bloomberg and Whitechapel Gallery.



Artangel is generously supported by the private patronage of The Artangel International CircleSpecial AngelsGuardian Angels and The Company of Angels.

 


 

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