Stepping into the darkness with strangers, following small red lights, herded into a small windowless room is not often how one begins an evening at the theatre. And when the masks come out you’d be forgiven for thinking it was set to be a very different kind of evening altogether. But fear not, you’re in the hands of Punchdrunk now – and you are about to enter their much anticipated National Theatre collaboration, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Then again, as the door slams shut, maybe fear is exactly what you should be feeling…
Returning to London with their first large scale performance since The Masque of the Red Death, The Drowned Man takes place in Temple Studios, a former postal sorting warehouse in Paddington. Punchdrunk need no introduction when it comes to their place in the world of immersive performance and judging by the buzz around their latest production, The Drowned Man is certainly no exception.
As the iron grill on the elevator is thrown back and we are pushed out into the deserted town, it takes a moment to understand the sheer scale of what you’re seeing, a world meticulously designed and directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. Taking over four floors, Temple Studios reveals itself with astonishing sets, labyrinthine corridors and hiding places, including (but by no means limited to) a forest, trailer park, dressing room, a dancefloor that could only have been borne from a Lynchian nightmare and even a desert. It truly takes at least half an hour to get your bearings and embrace this eerie, all-encompassing world. Thankfully we have three hours, the relative safety of masked and silent anonymity and only the limits of our own imaginations and bravery to explore this fascinating place.
Any hints on the plot shall remain masked in this review. Part of the overwhelming fun of a Punchdrunk performance is that you are left to experience on your own. For me, flying solo was one of the most liberating parts, free from clingy friends who were too scared to climb down tunnels or go inside the caravan or rifle through the papers. My hint – lose the friends. Call it an accident.
But in a nutshell, The Drowned Man is an intricately wound interpretation of Buchner’s Woyzeck, weaving together the tragic and lustful narratives of the unhinged Wendy and wayward Marshall and the cuckolded William with seductive Mary and her drugstore cowboy Dwayne. But this is 1960s Hollywood, where we all want to be stars and people will do anything to stay in the limelight. And it’s all going to come out tonight at the studio’s wrap party.
As the scenes unfold around us, we’re left to follow our character of choice along their journey, running alongside them before they disappear into the darkness. Do we follow him or her? Do we watch from aside or sit down next to them? The joy is that, depending on your journey, you could do both. Having taken a wrong turn somewhere between the medical centre and the rodeo, I found myself stumbling upon a familiar scene. Had I succumbed to a heat induced frenzy and fallen down a rabbit hole? No. I’d come across a Punchdrunk feat whereby I could relive an old scene but this time live it differently. Instead of following the bruised heroine, I could now run after the guilty husband.
While it’s tempting to want to revisit The Drowned Man, to fill in gaps you may have missed, for me, I’m happy knowing such gaps exist. We are spoiled with opportunities to see it all, although in the cavernous set this is nigh on impossible. In your regular play, we never see what happens to each character when they leave the stage. But with Punchdrunk, nothing is off set, everything is exposed and it’s our responsibility to choose who we want to stalk into the wilds. That pivotal letter that sends a character into despair is now carefully left unattended or physically dropped into our laps. And it’s amazing what you can find out about a character by rummaging through their medical files or reading the frantically scribbled notes on backs of photos or call sheets. Nothing here is merely a prop; everything is a device to guide you along in your live adventure.
Beautifully led by Doyle’s contemporary choreography, the unmasked performers are our guides throughout this surreal and dizzying journey. From smells, sights and sounds of the time, notably the eerie reprise of The Shangri-La’s ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’, The Drowned Man is an overwhelming sensory experience that spits you out, sand in shoes, woodchip on knees, wide eyed and disorientated, in the very best way.
With so much going on, there is of course an inherent fear of missing out. In closing – ignore the temptation to live out the reviews; you can’t pre-plan your route so I won’t tell you mine. Besides, it was my adventure. Now go have your own.
Ticket availability is good from August and can be purchased from National Theatre.
Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable runs until 8 December 2013 at:
31 London Street