The Drowned Man and the Delighted Spectator: Punchdrunk Review

Punchdrunk have made a triumphant return to London theatre with their newest production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. I saw it during preview week, and now, 24 hours later, I am still delightfully turning the events over and over in my head and analysing every last bit of the production.

The event is described as:

Have you ever seen nature inside out? When the sun stands at midday and it’s as if the world was going up in flames?

Step into the world of Temple Pictures where the Hollywood studio system meets a forgotten hinterland filled with dreamers who exist at the fringes of the movie industry. Here, celluloid fantasy clings to desperate realism and certainty dissolves into a hallucinatory world. Inspired by Buchner’s fractured masterpiece Woyzeck, this theatrical journey follows its protagonists along the precipice between illusion and reality.

The audience arrives to a journey through pitch-black corridors, down a creepy lift and then into a half abandoned fairground- and all this is before it even starts.

The event is of a fabulous design- everyone is given a mask and 3 hours to explore a world inside a warehouse to try to solve the mystery of what happened at a Hollywood studio to make it abruptly shut down over night- with absolutely no talking (you will get chucked out.) Actors perform scenes here and there- but there is almost no dialogue. All the scenes are acted out through beautifully and powerfully choreographed dances (most of which, particularly the table cleaning scene, are absolutely breath-taking.)

There are two versions of the story of Woyzeck running concurrently on different floors- one with a male Woyzeck, one with a female – and I only saw the stories overlap and touch each other once. I saw the male version, told through the characters of William and Mary. This is the main story, but subplots are everywhere and include a drugs ring, a dodgy gas company, and unethical medical research. There are also continuing themes running through the event- witchcraft (in particular a weird symbolic drawing), peacocks, cactuses/gardening, horses, and, rather bizarrely, cans of peas. But be warned; red herrings are everywhere.

The hardest thing about the experience is also the best. You are told in the beginning that you have to chose your own experience and chose your own fate- this is true on so many levels. Every time a corner is turned, you stumble upon the actors and witness a scene- but just as soon as it starts, the actors dash off in different directions to continue their story, and you have to chose who to follow.

Because you are hunting for clues and determined to solve the mystery, these split second decisions are gut wrenching and leave you constantly feeling as though you are missing out on something else you need to see (hint: you are.)

Sometimes the actors meander to their next destination; sometimes they run. Often you find yourself following one actor and suddenly a herd of masked figures run past you; and then before you know it you are chasing them as well, your previous quest forgotten. For this reason, as well as the way the stories are laid out, nothing is in chronological order (but my god is it brilliant fun piecing it all together.)

You also choose how you spend your time; do you follow actors around, or spend your time investigating the sets? Both provide equally vital clues, and there is something wonderfully exciting about rooting through drawers, opening letters, going through fridges (really!) and leafing through the books in the sets. There’s a box hidden in the backstage locker room that is worth seeking out (careful when you pick it up- I knocked a few shells off) but note that it’s a living set, and things move during the performance. Another member of my group found the box in a different locker at a different time.

The world that you walk into is flawlessly constructed. The attention to detail is incredible, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before (the caravans and their cupboards being a particular favourite.) This makes every step of the journey incredibly realistic, and you believe in it- all the way through travels which take the audience into darkened woods, a desolate beach (gorgeously eerie and watch out for the scarecrow funeral), an American cowboy bar, run down motels, and then to a basement with a secret society style room surrounded by rooms and halls that would not be out of place in an abandoned mental asylum.

There are staff attired in black masks to move you around and make sure you all gather for the finale, but I accidentally got forgotten in the basement for 10-15 minutes. Alone. Enter massive panic attack (seriously I was alone and almost sick from fear.) By the time I was found, I had missed half of the finale (and hyperventilated) but did get to watch the rest of it on the stage, which made up for it.

It certainly makes for an incredible evening. Where I was surprised with it though, was with the very limited interaction that actors have with guests. The ‘audience’ are very much observers. Actors move through you and past you with no acknowledgement. There are only two real times of acknowledgement- an awkward as hell hug in the beach area, and after the finale, when they grab select audience members’ hands and lead them to the bar (course I got my hand held- what is it about me that screams ‘sure, play with me!’)

The only other interaction I had was wonderfully eerie. Quite by chance, I found myself alone in a side room with the actor playing the studio producer, who locked eyes with me for two minutes and then strode straight up to me and stood in front of me. He then nodded and patted his jacket pocket -a clue!- and wandered off.

This is a wonderful, wonderful production- the story it creates and how it encourages you to get what you want out of it is delightfully enticing. Every aspect of it leaves you hungry for more- more clues, more knowledge, more scenes. But do not expect to leave it with everything wrapped up nicely. What this performance asks of you is that you think, that you seek out and claw out all the information that you can, and analyse and interpret the answer to the mysterious closure of the studios.

Did I get the answer? Yes, most of it, but only because I managed to find the doctor’s office and be there for a crucial scene. But I’ve certainly not understood all of it- I’ve still got questions about the gas company for starters, as well as some lineage questions.

I’m not going to give it a rating just yet, as I think one of the strongest aspects of Punchdrunk is that everyone who sees it sees something completely different – and the story hasn’t ended until it’s been discussed, analysed, and understood. For this reason, I’m going to wait until more people I know have seen it, and we’ve discussed it ad nauseum. I’ve also got tickets to see it once more in September- but I might even go again sooner than that.

Yes, it really is that good.

See The Drowned Man until Dec 30th.

See the Trailer here  (NSFW)

Some top tips:

– Book early time slots. The earlier you get there, the more time you have to explore- the event ends for everyone at the same time.

– Be very careful. A lot of rooms are pitch black with things to trip over and be so careful in the Americana set room- I fell over a stage light, as did many others.

– If you and your group want to stay togetherish put hands on shoulders while walking through the black tunnels (they divide!) and stay as far to the back of the lift as you possibly can.

– Pick up the candles in each room and use them to read papers that aren’t in the light.

– If you have allergies or hay fever (in particular an allergy to hay) take antihistamines!!

– Don’t wear shoes you don’t want to get sand in!

– I found it very helpful having seen Woyzeck before – you may want to watch Herzog’s version as a prequel.

– “May contain nudity”- it does.

TheDrownedMan

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8 thoughts on “The Drowned Man and the Delighted Spectator: Punchdrunk Review

  1. I think you saw something different to me. It was incoherent, poorly acted, lacked dialogue and was distinctly uninspiring. The best I can say is that the sets were good, though why 1950s America would have 1970s British caravans is beyond me.

    I think you maybe suffering from a case of the emperor’s new clothes. This thing was such a disappointment. Bored from the first poorly choreographed and unrealistic fight scene, through the drifting amateur actors/dancers over playing every unintelligible vignette through to the awful conclusion, complete with ear splitting bass.

    As art it failed to challenge, as entertainment it failed to entertain. As a waste of three hours of your life where you will be left wondering why on earth you paid for such tripe it succeeds.

    • Beautiful atmospheric sets and some reliable contemporary dance but my overall feeling was one of disappointment, frustration and exclusion. Mask-wearing causes problems for those of us who need glasses to read, especially in dim light, and I felt I missed a lot of clues because I just couldn’t see. Similarly I missed many of the set pieces because the other audience members closed-in and obscured the action. I think they need to re-think audience management so that everyone gets a good chance to see more.

  2. I had a fantastic time, as I usually do at Punchdrunk shows. I guess it’s not for everyone though and for those insisting on a lot of dialogue (there are good reasons why there isn’t much at the non-linear shows) like the commenter above it’s an impossible sell. Some people get it, and some people complain about the “ear splitting bass”.

    I have some sympathy for the lady above regarding glasses. I have a friend who also moans about how badly the masks work with glasses, and yet he manages to enjoy Punchdrunk too. She shouldn’t worry about missing clues through not being able to read, the detail is there to be enjoyed but is often inessential to understanding. As for other punters getting in the way, that is an occupational hazard it is true, and my approach is to simply go elsewhere and find some less crowded action. The nature of these shows is that you won’t see everything – it is a fragmentary dreamlike journey. And that’s why I love it.

  3. Saw this last night and was really disappointed.

    The set design and production were masterful as ever. Thought the acting and atmosphere were great too.

    The story however was incoherent – I don’t understand how you managed to gather all those storylines and themes. I wish I’d read the story that it’s based on now, but I don’t think that should be a prerequisite of understanding what’s going on. It certainly wasn’t so at Masque of the Red Death.

    The individual scenes seemed cool but time after time they just ended and I couldn’t find any further strains. I discovered preceding events and loops of the same things that I had already seen. As I explored I found more and more studios so deduced that they were all different stories with similar themes/crossovers. Reading this blog I’ve found that that’s not the case.

    Agree with the point about too many audience members. When you’ve just spent five minutes wandering around looking for some narrative and then can’t see the bit that you do eventually find (especially when it’s a dance and not dialogue), I think it ruins the illusion. Again that never happened to me at Masque. Also there were points where I wanted to read props but other people had the candles. At one point I was reading a newspaper under the light of a desk lamp when someone moved it to read something else!

    The bit about glasses is totally valid. I can’t believe they’re still not telling people to wear contacts. I don’t need glasses but again it ruins the illusion when you see an audience member with their mask half off so that they can see.

    Also found loads of really cool rooms, thinking that there was going to be a brilliant scene there at some point, but never found myself back there again which was a bit of a let down.

    The finale didn’t make much sense, plus we’d literally just found a room full of actors that we hadn’t seen before so were doubly confused. Couldn’t really see a lot of it as there were too many people there too.

    It was the last day of previews last night so not sure if and what is still being refined.

    The question that I find myself asking myself is this. Does a production like this – with the potential to provide a unique experience for a lot of people – risk sacrificing the experience of others to achieve it? I had an amazing time at Masque but know people who hated it. Is it okay that performances like this are based on being in the right place at the right time? Possibly yes.

    A friend saw the same show and had a great time. She has worked for punchdrunk before though, and had a better idea of how to get the best out of it.

    Tips I would give to people:

    – It’s more of a dance theatre piece so if that’s not your bag then you might not like it.

    – Read the story in advance, prepare yourself as much as possible.

    – Get in as early as possible, spend a bit of time exploring the set, then get stuck into the narrative.

    – If you wear glasses then make sure you’ve got contacts in.

    – Despite the email saying that there is limited cloakroom space, they actually don’t let any bags in so don’t take one. They will make you put it in the cloakroom.

    – The actors go in loops. Follow one until the loop ends and then pick someone else until it ends.

    My two pence and all that. 🙂

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