Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Drowned Man

Way, way back in January, one of my friends treated me to an evening out to see immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and the National Theatre's most recent offering, The Drowned Man. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Seriously. It was mind-blowingly awesome. I loved it so much I couldn't stop recommending it and took my sister and her boyfriend, and my youngest sister all to see it to make sure they didn't miss it. My youngest sister liked it so much we went back to see it again, just a few weeks before it finished its run. If it hadn't wrapped, I suspect we might have gone again. Yes it really was that good, and no, that is by far not the most times people have been.

The Drowned Man is set in a 1960s Hollywood film studio, Temple Pictures. Inside the studio where stars and starlets chase their dreams, two lovers struggle to make ends meet. Tragedy strikes when infidelity, scheming and betrayal drive them apart, leading one of them into ever increasing delusion and paranoia until eventually it ends in a horrific death. Strangely, a similar story unfolds in parallel outside the gates of the studio among the people of the town. Even more mysteriously, something happened to Temple Studios itself, which we are told was shut down overnight for an unknown reason...

Do you know Punchdrunk? They made their name through pioneering large scale immersive theatre where audience members are free to roam and interact with the sets, the story and the characters.

I'd been to an open air promenade play before (based on Lords and Ladies, the Discworld book by Sir Terry Pratchett) which was staged in a park and where the audience followed the actors around the various scenes as the story unfolded. But we were still only watching in the background. Punchdrunk's productions are truly immersive. They convert huge disused buildings into unbelievably detailed sets and you are allowed to go wherever you want as the actors enact the story around you. There's no right or wrong way to go about it, you choose what you want to do and see. Though, 'seeing' doesn't describe the complete sensation, it's more 'experiencing'. You don't just watch as a passive audience, you have to work for it by choosing what to do. Very often you have to chase after the characters (up and down stairs, through narrow corridors, across forests and deserts...) as they go about their business. You can stand right next to the actors in a fight, sit at their desks, eavesdrop on intimate conversations, read a note they've read, look through cabinets, walk into their homes, riffle through their belongings... the amazing sets, the sounds, the smells, the music, the lighting, and the actors, all catapult you into the world that the story creates. It is as if you are watching from inside the story, beside the characters. It's like a live-action computer game. There are some rules though - all audience members have to wear a mask, talking is not allowed, and you are encouraged to explore on your own. A lot of it is practically in the dark, with only strategic lighting to guide you through the huge maze of rooms and sets. The more you search, the more secrets you uncover. And if you are very brave (and very lucky), you might find yourself rewarded with a special interaction.

For The Drowned Man, four floors of an old postal sorting warehouse was converted into Temple Studios and its town. The scale and detail of the sets were just incredible. To give you an idea of the sheer size, it played host to around 40 cast and 600 audience members at full capacity, with lots of space still left over. There was a working cinema inside. Yes really! You could have gotten lost in there. Each show ran for three hours but that was still not enough to see everything. You could easily have spent it just exploring the sets and rummaging through the details. And if you decided to follow the characters, there were multiple story lines happening simultaneously all over the four floors and it was impossible to follow everything. My friend and I missed a whole floor on the first visit and even after seeing it three times I hadn't followed every character.

The story itself is inspired by Woyzeck, a fractured, unfinished play by George Buchner, about a soldier who is driven crazy by his lover's affair and ends up killing her. It also draws on ideas from other works including short story The Sandman, and novels The Day of the Locust and Something Wicked This Way Comes. To quote Punchdrunk's own description, Temple Studios is a place where '...celluloid fantasy clings to desperate realism and certainty dissolves into a hallucinatory world' as we '..[follow] its protagonists along the precipice between illusion and reality.'

For me, it very much gave a sense of the dark underbelly of the Hollywood dream - voyeurism, exploitation, obsession and corruption. I loved the air of menace that ran through the whole story, the allusions to the malevolent and the supernatural that played with the mind and made everyone very jumpy. I loved how, as the audience, we wandered around this world in eerie white masks as if we were ghosts - we could see the characters but they couldn't see us (or could they...?). The freedom to roam everywhere and be so close to everything completely blurred the fourth wall and, in a crazily beautiful way, brought full circle the very idea of fantasy/reality that was being played out.

I also loved that each person's experience was completely unique to them - only I saw everything the way that I saw it, even though we were all watching the same thing. And because of the story-within-a-story, multiple layered nature of the game that we were playing, we could all be seeing a different layer of the story depending on how deeply we were looking for hidden clues and trying to unravel the secrets. Oh how things clicked into place when reading spoilers afterwards.

I can't wait to see more of Punchdrunk's work. I'd first become aware of them a few years ago when they turned railway arches at Waterloo station into the setting of an immersive play for the launch of a sci-fi horror game for one of the big consoles (found out too late, didn't see it T_T). Their Sleep No More, which has located the story of Macbeth inside a 1930s hotel, is currently running in New York. Will they bring that back over to the UK? Or will their next production be something completely new? I wait with bated breath! Here is Punchdrunk's founder, the genius that is Felix Barrett, to tell you a bit more:

PS. All the scenes you see in the trailers are from the actual sets that were on location.

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