A ‘tunnel of love’ but 228’s the number of the bored

Posted by Julian Hall
Friday, 22 May 2009 at 06:26 pm

Is Punchdrunk’s Tunnel 228 a great example of the Emperor’s new clothes, or in this case, new bunker?

The latest venture from the much vaunted theatre group has set the chattering classes teeth to overdrive and the residual pile of enamel chippings seems to have obscured the fact that the ‘show’ is, well, a bit dull frankly. I’ve read a number of reviews across a range of esteemed publications and noted that that the sell-out Tunnel 228 has proved to be the tunnel of love as far as the critics are concerned.

However, it’s one thing to disagree with their opinion (people have disagreed with mine as a comedy reviewer, though they have strangely disappeared since), it’s quite another to disagree with the classification of the show as a whole.

Why oh why (and starting a sentence like that means you know that this event was never going to be up my street) is Tunnel 228 not being reviewed by art critics? It’s a conceptual piece housing religious and nihilistic imagery in a post-industrial context with an edgy soundscape…you see, that sentence already belongs in a gallery dunnit? I’ve added the ‘dunnit’ cos I am clearly gonna get labelled a fick fillistine for this, innit. Ah well, phuck it.

What classifies this as an installation rather than a piece of theatre (and most critics seemed willing to concede this is so) was there was no real narrative, it’s a snapshot of oppression with Fritz Lang as the art director for the shoot. Moreover many of the ‘human roles’ are in fact played by wax models. This brings a whole new category to the acting world i.e. “I thought you were waxy darling!” one notch up from wooden meaning you were perfectly adequate for the scene but you didn’t really have to do much did you?

When Guardian Michael Billington generously gave Punchdrunk’s previous venture The Masque of The Red Death four out of five stars he added:

“I would enter only two caveats. The evening’s appeal is almost entirely sensory: it leaves the heart and mind untouched. And, whereas the joy of most theatre is that one participates in a collective experience, here the stress is on individually determined journeys.”

That is, it has to be said a pretty big bleedin’ caveat but it nicely encapsulates my overall criticism of Tunnel 228.

At this point I should mention that Time Out gave Tunnel 228, five out of a possible six stars. Again, I am not going to quibble with the reviewer’s personal opinion but what I will say is: why (oh why) do they have to meddle with the star ratings and go one better? Is the last star like a bonus ball where the reviewer stars it out of five and then rolls a dice to see if it gets an extra one? Is the extra star a kind of artistic London Weighting allowance? Methinks we should be told.

Anyway, I digress down a different tunnel. My visit to Tunnel 228 happened nearly two weeks ago. I went with an actor friend of mine who had managed to bag some free tickets. In respect of value for money then, things began well. Add to that the free face mask (I duly cancelled my order for a swine flu mask), albeit one hard to breathe through (maybe a kind of heady nausea was part of the plan) and the expensive looking programme-cum-brochure given away free at the end and I was quids in. But, as Mr Billington alludes to, I was feeling a bit light in the head and heart department – and it wasn’t just the mask talking.

In this ‘bring-your-own-narrative’ artsy party you can make your way through a paper forest and go ‘neath a sky of light seemingly generated by a crucified Jesus (though you’d think he had enough on his plate) and gawk at a number of disquieting images; a coffin with baby birds peeking out of it, a (real) man stuck treading a kind of water mill contraption, another man (wax) face down in a pool of water (not connected to the water mill, there’s no whodunit here, just some ‘whydunnit’), another man goes up and down on some straight track while another scales a wall. Upstairs a wax actor is having a difficult first date with a raven, with cutlery supplied by Salvador Dali & Co. What can it all mean? Someone must have given a monkey’s, as one of the exhibits is a chimpanzee.

Meanwhile, ‘theatre-goers’ queue for a peek through the small windows of the ‘ladies toilet’ to catch a scene that could be titled ‘Friday night at Brown’s gone wrong’, although when I saw it the man gyrates drunkenly and the woman is the one who has passed out. I think it was meant to be a night club but had the feel of a strip club private room, either way seedy was the name of the game. As with any nightclub and ladies toilet the queue is long for this exhibit. Sometimes one of the ‘actors’ has to say ‘move on please.’ It’s simple, direct…it’s, erm, instructions, not acting then, but it’s the closest to dialogue that you will get in this nocturnal theme park.

Recounting this now I am losing the will to live ever so slightly yet the will to swear seems strong. I shall resist judgements like “oh for fuck’s sake” and my favourite as-used-by Eddie Murphy critique, used when he comes face-to-face with installation art: “get the fuck out of here”. I’ve not plumbed the depths of cussing and I will take to the high moral ground as willingly as I took to the exit and the outside world after this show. As my actor friend said, the most striking bit about the evening was the graffiti saturated underpass you come out into.

It’s never a great idea to quote the Nazis, but that oft wrongly attributed line about hearing the word culture and reaching for your gun, well, over-hyped art always puts me in mind of that catchy little adage, especially if you accompany it musically with Moby’s ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.’ Useful if this were to ever be podcasted.

Of course the nasty little undercurrent of that remark was that people were going to have to die. Look, I’ll sign up for withdrawal of grants but I’ll go no further than that. In fact just to show I have a) a soul and b) something approaching a social conscience let me say this: Tunnel 228 is pretty roomy so why not uses it as some classic ‘underneath the arches’ converted flats for the homeless?

My struggle to get to grips with conceptual art in the past has taken a ceasefire because often it has a real sense of humour about it, doctored tube maps, unmade beds, though the attention and funds it attracts seem to go beyond funny.

But better that us critics, whenever we hear the world culture we reach for our pen and only metaphorically call in the Fahrenheit 451 firemen.

As a comedy critic, the hullabaloo about events and happenings such as this does make me think that comedy should not suffer the ignominy of being considered as a low art form as it can have more direct engagement with the theatre-goer, more of a thought-provoking effect and elicit more of a collective response than I saw from this underground project.

Michael Billington’s fellow Guardian critic, Lyn Gardner wrote, in her review of Tunnel 228, that “we are living in an extraordinary era in British theatre. The stage, the gallery, the dance floor and even social gaming are all edging closer to each other, creating meeting points where sparks fly.”

She’s not wrong.

I for one can’t wait for Guitar Heroes-live at Wembley.