As the man’s hand left my shoulder and he passed by I realised he was completely naked. He broke into a run, kicking up the sand as he went. We followed suit in the near darkness, until he reached his tent. He crawled inside and out of view. Should I follow, or has his part ended? I looked around at the many masked voyeurs around me for answers but even through their sinister looking masks I could tell they were as confused as I was.
Don’t forget your compass….
Moments such as this are commonplace in Punchdrunk’s latest production, ‘The Drowned Man’. Directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, the action takes place in an old sorting office next to Paddington station. Commonly referred to as “immersive theatre”, we see the multiple narratives of the story unfold simultaneously on five floors of this sprawling, labyrinthine structure. We are asked to venture out into the world they have created, forging a unique journey, with the decision at every turning point ours alone to make.
My girlfriend, Pru, heard about the show from two friends who were going that evening. She explained to me as much as she could, which understandably wasn’t much, but we were both intrigued, so decided to join them. The performance starts in an elevator. As we descend, we are invited to put on our masks by the hostess, a glamorous studio actress with a Southern drawl. She further advises that we should travel alone and also study the small piece of paper that has been handed to each of us. Just as I finish reading this brief and cryptic introduction to the key plot themes that are about to unfold in front of us, the huge elevator doors are swung open and we are ushered out into the darkness.
In a matter of seconds I have lost Pru’s hand and am surrounded by an army of identical and unidentifiable faces. This is going to be a solo journey whether I like or not. A sense of panic sets in almost immediately, not just because of the darkness and eerie sounds around me, but more so because I feel lost. Am I going the right way? Is a pivotal moment in the plot happening right now in a different room to the one I am exploring? This feeling is exaggerated by the sheer size of the production. Was it on four levels or five? It’s impossible to tell. Every door opens into a whole new world. Afterwards, when discussing it with my friends, it soon became obvious that there were parts of it I had never even found! We are to believe that our surroundings are Temple Studios, the British outpost for a major Hollywood studio named Republic Pictures. Set in the 1950’s, the various storylines contain themes of love, sex, infidelity and murder.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the production is the set. Despite its vast scale, the attention to detail is staggering. Whereas traditional theatre can benefit from a certain amount of distance between their stagecraft and the audience, Punchdrunk have no such luxuries. We are allowed to venture into the shops, inspect items from inches away and explore through any door or space that take our fancy. A piece of paper on a desk may contain key information. A small photo pinned to a cork board may give us a motive for an event yet to unfold. In fact, there are so many of these minutiae that the design team have had to work hard to replace all the stolen items. I can’t help but think of the bowler hat scene from The Thomas Crown Affair, with Punchdrunk staff running around, desperately trying to locate ‘the person with the white mask’.
Less is more
The story unfolds in many different locations at once. It’s completely up to you to decide which aspects of the story you wish to follow. Sometimes I found myself venturing in one direction, only to then turn around having met an army of others going in the opposite direction. Surely they know something I don’t? However, I found that my enjoyment increased considerably when I finally resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to be able to take everything in. Only then could I slow down and start to fully appreciate the performances without an overbearing paranoia that I was missing out elsewhere.
The action itself is a blend of spoken word and modern dance. And whilst not always my cup of tea, this combination worked seamlessly, especially in conjunction with the breath-taking lighting and sound effects. I was just thankful they didn’t break into song. At any one time you might find yourself in sand dunes, under neon light, watching a murder, or perhaps a dimly lit bar in the middle of a drunken fist fight. The anonymity that the mask affords each of us, along with our invisibility in relation to the actors, adds to the voyeuristic nature of the show. This is both exhilarating and also disturbing at times.
Leave your party shoes at home
My only issues with ‘The Drowned Man’ were its length and its scale. At three hours long there is no doubt it is a tiring undertaking. Despite the fact there is a bar, with excellent live music, in which one can momentarily retire to regroup and refresh, your concentration levels and leg strength will be tested to their maximum. Furthermore, I can’t help but feel that Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle’s ambition has also been slightly their undoing. It was only in those first couple of minutes after reading and absorbing the information on the small piece of paper we had been given that I felt I had any clue what was going on. The show soon became a series of dislocated narratives, thoroughly compelling in their own right, but also lacking a continuous thread that would have helped us to further enjoy the character and plot development. I would unreservedly recommend seeing ‘The Drowned Man’. All I would say is that you might consider reading first a synopsis of Georg Büchner’s ‘Woyzeck’ on which the story is based in order to give you a better chance of understanding the action. Oh and also wear a very comfortable pair of shoes!