Trying to explain your personal Punchdrunk experience to someone who’s never had a Punchdrunk experience is like trying to describe a particularly convoluted dream to somebody – their eyes glaze over, they nod politely, occasionally they give you a strange look. (“I chased a naked man past a scarecrow funeral and into the desert – it was exhilarating.”)
I was a Punchdrunk virgin before I went to see The Drowned Man last Thursday. Now it’s all I can think about. For days later, I was having flashbacks, my dreams were permeated with images I had first seen inside Temple Studios. It was clear the three-hour experience was enough to impress itself strongly onto my subconscious.
Imagine you could enter David Lynch’s mind while he was thinking about a mash-up of his films, listening to heartbreak 50s music and looking at Salvador Dali paintings, and that you could move around freely inside his head, perusing papers, opening closed drawers and poking through caravans and motel rooms and you might – just might – start to grasp the essence of The Drowned Man. If you could synaesthetically take that ineffable feeling that came with the first chords of the opening tune to Twin Peaks and turn it into a building you could root around in, you’d be getting close to The Drowned Man.
Punchdrunk is not new to immersive, interactive theatre. They have been active in the UK for almost 13 years and previous shows such as The Masque of the Red Death and Faust were largely met by critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Sleep No More, their adaptation of Macbeth, currently staged in New York, has become an instant cult hit. The Drowned Man, however, is their biggest and most ambitious project to date, which has required – according to director Felix Barrett – “the budget of a small movie” in order to come to fruition. Punchdrunk have taken a former Royal Mail sorting office right next to Paddington station and transformed its massive 200,00 square-metre premises into a dark wonderland for audiences to roam, discover, and lose themselves in. Designers Barrett, Lin Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns have created a huge, intricate, surreal art installation sprawling over four floors (one of which is literally a desert), and have executed this with astonishing attention to detail.
Audiences don a mask which distinguish them from actors and are let loose into the building, encouraged to lose their friends and advised that “fortune favours the bold”, making The Drowned Man a deeply personal experience. One may choose to spend the allotted three hours perusing through drawers and roaming from trailer to motel to bar to saddle shop, and reading love letters, piecing together the story in that way. Or, you can pick an actor you feel a connection with, and follow them, by which I mean RUN. These actors sprint from scene to scene and you will need to be fast on your feet to catch up with them. They stop abruptly and interact with other characters, performing some of the most beautiful dance you will ever watch. These performers’ relationship with gravity is tenuous, to say the least, and the unlikeliest of things become dancing partners: a caravan, a table, a car…
The actors – a 30-strong cast – are playing simultaneous scenes based on Georg Buchner’s unfinished Woyzeck and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. The entire action would run for 10 hours if played back to back, and so The Drowned Man makes you aware of your choices in an acute way: watching one scene means missing another. It is heightened reality. The audience understands the story depending on the perspective of the character they choose to follow and so there are no ‘supporting characters’ as each actor is continuously doing something or other.
There were times during my experience when I decided to break off from the sea of masks and found myself alone in dark spaces, feeling real fear, and deciding to push through it. I was rewarded with the discovery of a secret maze. Fortune favours the bold.
For a while, I thought of the actors as ghosts, cursed to live their tragedies on a loop every day while audiences watched them. Then I realised it was quite the opposite: we could see them; they couldn’t see us. We were the ghosts, we were the invisible ones. And with the anonymity of a mask comes surprising audacity. I stood in a room with ten other masked people and watched a man bathe, and felt no sense of shame. It was nothing I had ever experienced before.
On more than one occasion, I recalled Tiresias, the old, androgynous, invisible and prescient narrator of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The audience is Tiresias, “foresuffering all”, looking upon arid deserts, woman stooping to folly, scenes of ritual and cleansing, lust and death, “fragments… shored against… ruins”.
There is always sound, wherever you are, coming from hidden speakers, adding to the immersive experience together with clever tricks of the light, and now, almost a week on, when I look back on the memories I made in Temple Studios, I recall it as one recalls a dream: it is slippery and hazy, and intensely subjective.
I am already planning my next visit.
I know it will be completely different.