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:
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.
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.