The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable – Theatre Review

The Drowned Man

My previous experience of immersive theatre events only stretches so far as a series of live horror mazes in York last Halloween so when I was invited to see Punchdrunk’s latest epic production The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable I tentatively jumped at the chance. Punchdrunk are known for creating new worlds for audiences to explore and for their latest piece have teamed up with the National Theatre to create their biggest work yet.

Just near Paddington station sits an innocuous looking former postal sorting office with little signage and an excited huddle of theatre fans queuing outside. What lies inside is a Hollywood studio recreated over four floors complete with surrounding woodland, a small town, and a desert wasteland. The scope of the set is large enough that as a member of the audience roaming within in search of the story you might find a room at the start of the evening and never make your way back there again. Within the labyrinth of rooms, floors, and settings characters roam around acting out a variety of stories as the evening builds to two dramatic conclusions. The audience is free to explore, and are encouraged to do so alone, each wearing white masks that create a sense of an anonymous and ghostly presence that watches scenes of lust, violence, and desperation but never acts to intervene or interfere.

I arrived at the venue just after 7pm and joined the buzzing queue outside. I was attending the event alone which filled me with dread at the idea of exploring a psychedelic world alone, but also excited me as it gave me the freedom to take my own route through the world and weave my own story from what I found. Before entering the world of The Drowned Man we were all handed a slip of paper which detailed the two major plots that would be playing out through the evening:

The Drowned Man Synopsis

At any other theatre event this might be considered as spoilery but within the world of Punchdrunk this slip of paper became a lifeline with which I was able to relate the scenes I was to witness inside to the overall narrative.

By 7:30pm I was walking in a small group down a dark corridor which weaved left and right and was lit only by red light. Fully disoriented we entered a small room where other audience members waited nervously. From here we moved into a second room and were given our white masks. An announcement welcomed us to Temple Studios and invited us to the wrap party for a film at 10pm. Until then we were welcome to explore the studio provided we did not speak or remove our masks. We were also told that helpers in black masks would be around to provide help but not guide us and that we were better off exploring alone. So far it was all feeling pretty ominous.

Fully briefed we entered a large lift and met our first character of the night. A cheery American woman in an evening dress reiterated the instructions as she commandeered the lift down to the basement. Four of the twenty or so in the lift, including myself, stepped out of the lift and the woman slammed the door shut behind us. Had I come with a companion we would by now be separated from one another with no clue how to reunite in a massive building specifically designed to boggle the mind. The three women I suddenly found myself with seemed scared and tentative, unsure as to why we were suddenly alone in a dark basement corridor wearing masks and it was at this moment that I discovered the biggest surprise of the night. I wasn’t scared!

I was excited, emboldened, and wanted to explore. Leaving the only souls in sight behind I strode off through the first door I came to and so began an evening of running down corridors, nervously peering in doors, and scaring myself with my own reflection. If there was a closed door in the building I tried its handle and if a large crowd was following a character one way I would move in another.

For two and a half hours I roamed the building and at times found myself completely alone in a peculiar landscape; a snowy film set, a desert funeral attended by scarecrows, a smoke-filled room with checkerboard floor, or a caravan park surrounded by trees. At other moments I would stumble across a large group of people, normally formed because a few characters were playing out a scene that fit somehow into the jigsaw of a narrative, and for a brief period we would form a collective audience before dissipating once more.

A Hollywood Fable

Once a scene finished you were left with two options. Either you stay to explore the room the scene took place in or run desperately after one of the characters to see where they go next and how their plot develops. I tried both options; at one point chasing three characters to the basement only for them to disappear behind a locked door. Stranded once more I happened upon an initiation ceremony for a new actor at the fictional studio and left the scene only to return later when events had moved on without me and an orgy commenced.

That is the beauty of The Drowned Man.; the plot does not you need you to be there for it to progress. At any one moment during the evening two major storylines are unfolding simultaneously and numerous other subplots are progressing as well. It is pure chance what scenes you will witness, or what clues you might find on a character’s desk while exploring. Some reviewers seem to have found the amount of responsibility given to the audience to be too great. There is every chance you will miss all the key scenes but for me the Punchdrunk experience was about more than just the plot.

Admittedly if I hadn’t done my research beforehand the whole night might have been baffling but as it was I had one of the best evenings of my cultural life. The experience really was completely immersive as when you are not watching characters interact you are free to enter any set and touch the furnishings, leaf through papers, and smell the world. Walking through a series of motel bedrooms each has their own distinct smell that told you all you needed to know about their inhabitants.

Over the space of two and a half hours I saw dancing, singing, sex, murder, joy, and despair. In one evening I got stuck in a forest, followed a naked man through a desert, explored shrines and chapels, got lost in a secret tunnel between a dress shop and a cinema, witnessed an audition and an orgy, and had a silent conversation with the owner of the studio. Time moved at its own pace and at a point when I was worried that the evening was almost over I checked my watch and found only an hour had passed. When the evening came to a close the whole audience had congregated for the grand finale as if all drawn there by an invisible force. For a brief moment we were a fully formed audience sitting and watching a show before final bows were taken and we removed our masks and returned to the mundanity of the real world.

The whole evening was funny, scary, pretentious, and wonderful. I could have spent a whole week of evenings exploring the rooms and still not got bored or even close to having seen everything The Drowned Man has to offer.

I wasn’t expecting to but I absolutely loved it and want to go back right away. It is as simple as that.

The Drowned Man is booking until 30th December 2013 and needs to be seen to be believed. Tickets can be bought online but be warned as tickets peak at £47.50. If you can afford to go then go, otherwise pester a loved one for a theatrical Christmas treat.

Be bold and explore and you won’t be disappointed.

Arts on Film

Nutcracker

Unlike the one time I was taken to a panto, where I spent the whole time terrified I’d get called up on stage to do something humiliating, the first time I saw a ballet, I fell in love immediately. Strangely though, an interest in classical dance was not a popular hobby – especially in my teens – not helped by the fact that the rare production seen on television left me cold. It was devoid of any of the magic that had grabbed me in the first place, so chances were slim that I would persuade anyone else that the people dancing in their tights could make your emotions soar.

But the so-called “high” arts seem to be experiencing a fresh revival by pairing up with the medium of the people and heart of this blog: film. Trying to bring the arts to the masses is no new endeavour but recent times has shown a fresh spate of attempts to interest the general public in art forms often perceived as exclusive and difficult to access. Scooting away from the debate on what art actually is, it’s probably agreed that there are some forms that have widely been seen as the preserve of the few: opera, ballet, fine art, theatre that isn’t a musical – all entertainment that struggles with (or possibly embraces) an image of stuffiness and exclusivity.

Stage plays seem the clearest choice to transfer to the big screen and at the same time, arguably the most pointless but the National Theatre has been broadcasting its plays live since 2009. When Danny Boyle directed Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein earlier this year, there were accolades aplenty and having a ticket for either theatre or cinema event inspired envy. Less obvious was the decision to broadcast The National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Yet it was probably the only way most people would have been able to see it, considering all advance tickets have sold out and people are queueing in the early hours of the morning for entry that doesn’t require forking out £400 on eBay.

When I was eight, there was a massive difference between viewing a spectacle meant for the stage and squinting at it on a 14-inch television. But now the Royal Opera House regularly screens opera and ballet in cinemas – some live, some pre-recorded – while the New York City ballet can be seen dancing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker this Christmas. For about the cost of a seat at the top of the balcony in a traditional theatre, where the air is thin and the dancers no bigger than they are on TV, it will be possible to watch one of the world’s top ballet companies in the comfort of your local cinemas “almost live”, although I make no judgements on how comfortable your local cinema is.

The big question is whether it’s any good. Have you seen any of these events or do they still fail to capture your interest, despite the increased accessibility? To find out for ourselves, this festive season we will be heading along to check out The Nutcracker, quintessential Christmas ballet that it is. We’ll see whether it captures the excitement of a live performance or sucks the joy out, leaving it a sterile husk. Or – the far more likely option – somewhere in between.