Alright, I’m lucky enough to go to the theatre quite a lot (I have connections, yeah? …OK, one connection) but this particular visit was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was consuming, compelling, complex, confident, considered… please insert other complimentary c-adjectives below! But, really, Punchdrunk’s immersive and interactive performance of ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ was astounding, and worth every penny. (I will say now that it will only run for another couple of weeks, so go, book your tickets now before it sells out, then come back and read the rest of this… priorities!)
Punchdrunk’s ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ is based on Georg Buchner’s acclaimed play, Woyzeck, which was left in a fragmented state as Buchner died before final completion. Punchdrunk’s adaptation sets the story, which toys with the themes of jealousy and confusion, in Hollywood (along with its very own filming studio). The relationship of the ‘actors’ and their various other movie-biz counterparts weave themselves together seamlessly, both in their working lives and their personal lives. It pushes the boundaries of the original play to challenge the perception of reality in the face of dreams and illusions. For approximately three hours, the audience (each of whom has been masked), wander freely around the great expanse of the old post sorting office in Paddington. Made up of about 200 rooms and three or four floors (I can’t remember exactly how many, the whole place has morphed in my mind from being a building to being a warped Hollywood community), hundreds of audience members are able to lose themselves within the play and become the fly on the wall within sinfully secret and sensuously sexy scenes. The cast are all identified clearly by their fifties American dress and non-masked faces. Audience members are advised to pick certain characters, be it a lead, or be it a minor character, and follow their story, switching throughout the performance as they please, perhaps when one particularly fascinating character pops up. (Conversely they may choose to follow objects, they too have stories.) Because of this configuration, each audience member will get a different experience if they are brave enough to go it alone.
The whole performance is meticulously coordinated, and I must assume that this is done largely by the use of music, uniting everyone, and prompting the turn of one scene to the next. In such a large space, which I will leave undescribed though it is incredible, the actors do very well to move from one conversation, to another room or another floor, to (second perfect) bump into another character which spills them into the next scene. So, not only is the set and the adaptation wonderfully considered, but the actors too are extremely talented. ‘The Drowned Man’ jumps, fully committed, into the muggy, uncertain waters of physical theatre, and sees the characters being hypnotically balletic in intricately choreographed interactions, expressing their love, their anger, their lust, their sorrow. These performances, along with the spooky voice-over from the ‘Hollywood director’ and the brooding darkness of the place, creates a world where reality really is indecipherable from illusion.
If you go, which I can only urge to the strongest degree, then go in flat shoes and loose, comfortable clothing, prepared to chase the character which most intrigues you… it is only here that close stalking is not only allowed, but recommended. Also, do not clutch at the hand of your best friend or your partner, allow the performance to consume you completely, and individually, otherwise you will not get such a wonderful experience. Challenge yourself; at first it is odd, frightening perhaps, and alien, but very quickly it becomes just brilliant. You may even be lucky enough, as I was, to have a one on one experience with one of the characters.
I will hold back from saying too much. Part of the beauty is discovering everything for yourself. I was asked afterwards, having no prior knowledge of the performance myself, what I thought in comparison to what I had expected, and I answered,
‘I expected an island and I got the world.’
So there, just… GO!
Performance poster courtesy of http://punchdrunk.com/current-shows and the show closes on the 6th of July.