I’ve seen some incredible pieces of theatre over the years, but this experience topped them all.
Punchdrunk have pioneered a immersive, site-specific style of theatre production since 2000, in which audiences roam through a set and experience the action as and when they happen upon it. They specialise in classic texts, Faust and The Masque of the Red Death being previous examples, and their current production is inspired by Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck (I hadn’t heard of it, so you can have a smiley face sticker if you had). Titled The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, it’s set across four floors of an abandoned sorting office next to Paddington station, and snatches of two parallel narratives are played out simultaneously. The audience are all masked, and encouraged to wander freely and explore.
It’s amazing. Utterly. Amazing.
I admit that the dislocated glimpses of narrative are difficult to follow, but if you do what I did and don’t even bother trying, this becomes unimportant. Action is a pleasant surprise, rather than something you chase after (and you will literally have to chase after it, if you want to follow it). Some sequences sort of made sense, others were utterly mad. We watched an actress dress a mannequin in the dark, then wheel it through the studio and… rub herself against it. She then used a watch to kidnap an audience member. Another actor was chased by a small group of the audience (us included), as he shrieked with cuckolded grief and threw himself through a barely-lit desert, tore off all his clothes, then was baptised in a bath whilst weeping. I quite enjoyed the absurdity of it all, as it added an extra level of surrealism.
What made the production so particularly wonderful for me though was the set. We were quite content wandering through the building, and exploring the labyrinth of detailed spaces that have been created. Being interrupted by the actors added a frisson of excitement, and we would follow them until they led us somewhere new that we wanted to explore, but it was our own journey that mattered. A few of those we discovered that stuck in my mind were a forest of pine trees surrounded by decrepit caravans; a room layered with persian rugs and ornately carved wooden furniture; another full of dusty instruments, hand tools and ornaments woven from palm fronds; a western bar with small stage and performing drag-queen; a desert lit only by a huge neon sign, half-sunk in the deep sand; a hollywood-style dressing room, complete with feather boas and lipstick stained tissues; a workshop devoted to succulents; and a gentleman’s study with the expected leather chair, cryptic notepad and hat stand.
It was in this latter room that my friend James and I were interrupted in our snooping (and hat trying-on) by an actor in a white tuxedo jacket. We were sufficiently intrigued by the scene we witnessed to follow him up and down flights of stairs, through dark spaces and hidden doors. He was walking so quickly we had to jog to keep up, and I remarked at one point to James (who I stuck to like glue after losing everyone else we had come with) “he’s probably heading to the bar!” A minute later and we burst into that very sanctum. An actual bar is hidden at the centre of the warehouse (well, it’s in there anyway… I couldn’t actually locate it save by accident) that the audience are invited to visit, buy a drink in and remove their masks temporarily. Here we discovered two more of our party propping up the bar, and soon after the other missing pair stumbled in as well. Which was exciting in itself! Having lost each other in the darkness it felt like a reunion, but one in some strange dreamland given the different sights we had seen and experienced. “Have you seen the horse?!” Aidan asked me at one point. I had not, and did not, much to my disappointment. Having regrouped and downed a few gins, we remasked and headed back into the darkness.
The white Bauta masks all audience members are required to wear added yet another dimension to the production. Skeletally pronounced cheekbones, dark, empty eye-sockets and a pointed, beak-like jaw with no mouth became familiar, but were unequivocally creepie. We became both anonymous and a part of the performance; feeling able to walk up to actors and observe them closely, as well as to study each other’s responses. As fascinating as the action, was the license to observe the behaviour of the audience. Usually if you catch someone staring at you they immediately look away, embarrassed and fearful of confrontation. This does not happen at a Punchdrunk performance. New groups formed like packs of wild animals, brought together in the hunt with nothing in common except a shared interest in proceedings. If you get too close to the actors, they will also take this as a sign that you are willing to interact, and you’d better be ready! Speech is forbidden when masked, but I was both danced with and kidnapped by different actors, so if you prefer to observe only then don’t get too close.
We were eventually ushered into a room filled with white faces, in front of a stage where the grand finale played out. As the audience began to applaud, the actor in the white tuxedo reached for my hand, and without thinking I entwined my fingers with his. I panicked, a little, (obviously) but nevertheless trusted him completely. A few other people were similarly led away by the cast, and I could also sense Tom hot on our heels! I was led back into the now-deserted bar, where the actor gently removed my mask for me, and smiled. I felt bizarrely elated, laughing and smiling with him. He thanked me profusely for coming (my manners kicked in but any wit or intellect I possess abandoned me), then left me.
We regrouped with most of our party outside (some were lost in the darkness, grateful texts the only evidence of their survival) and unanimously agreed that it had been an incredible experience. There’s so much more I could tell you, but you should really just see it for yourselves. Wear as little clothing as possible as it’s very, very hot, avoid glasses as the masks are difficult to wear over them apparently, and wear thinly-soled shoes – the feel of the changing floor under my ballet-pumps was thrilling, as sand gave way, bark chippings crunched, and puddles splashed.
The Drowned Man run is currently on until March, the run having been extended given its popularity. Just go! You won’t regret it.
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