On being a ghost – my third run through The Drowned Man

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As you may or may not know, I seem to have developed a new obsession – this time with The Drowned Man, currently running in London. Last Sunday, I went to experience it for the third time and decided I needed to write that journey so as not to lose it, since trying to remember your Punchdrunk experience becomes harder and harder as time passes. Like trying to recall a dream. This may seem a little disjointed, but I hope you enjoy it either way, and I hope it inspires you to go see this amazing production before it’s gone for good.

I am a ghost. I become invisible and I am floated into a 1950s town just outside a successful Hollywood studio. It is dark, and there is a smell of paint and gunpowder in the air, mixed with hay, piss, hard liqueur, and the singing of cicadas. I haunt the streets, unseen, until I come to a place by the edge of the forest, dotted with shanty caravans. An eerie blue light blankets the earth, and the trees are tall shadows. I lay my palm flat against one tree trunk, and decide to get lost, if I can. It is remarkably hard to get lost when you are a ghost.

I stumble across a fight between two men. Looking around, I can see other ghostly faces, just like my own. One of them bows his head in acknowledgement of me. I do the same. I am new to this liminal plane; I have not yet learnt the etiquette. Only I am drawn to one of the men – an angry man, he swears and spits and kicks his opponent to the floor. I follow him into a chapel, where his eyes fill with sadness as he sees me. I am stunned – I never imagined somebody like me could be seen. He leaves the holy place and I follow him. Neither of us belongs there. He leads me to his caravan and holds out his hand. I take it without hesitation. It is warm; mine is cold. He closes the door behind us.

It is a tight spot but we fit there, on his bed: me in my mask; him in his hat. He reaches out and touches my hair, then removes my mask, the very thing that curtains my identity. My face is exposed. I feel raw. He strokes my cheek, “It’s happening again,” he says. He pours us both a shot of whiskey and like old friends we knock them right back. The firewater burns our throats and there is a moment of silence. From an envelope on his nightstand, I learn his name is Jack.

Jack takes my hands in his and stands me up. “Will you trust me?” he asks, and I nod. After all, what choice do I have? He blindfolds me, and I bow my head to allow him to tie a knot. Grabbing me by the shoulders, he begins to push, leading me backwards into the darkness. I can feel dry branches scratching against my skin as he talks to me about the world being on fire. Suddenly, there is sand under my feet, and the desert sun beats down on us. He is holding me, cheek to cheek, and whispering in my ear, secrets of the desert, secrets of the sand. I can smell the booze, rancid on his breath, as he removes the blindfold and hands me my mask. There is only darkness. He leans in for the last time and tells me the world is hotter than hell and I am on my own, then I’m being pushed out of a door and back into the town. The door slams shut. I have lost my only companion. I put my mask back on and return to roam the streets.

There is a bright, violent light, and the next thing I know, I am in the desert again, only this time I can see clearly. There is a hotel buried beneath the sand dunes and in the distance, I can see people in top hats, seated. I run towards them. They are made of hay: scarecrows attending the funeral of a fellow scarecrow. Confused, I walk on until I find a couple of rooms filled with altars dedicated to the voodoo death spirit, Maman Brigitte. A small bronze bowl contains shells and a tiny piece of red string; the Bible is opened to the book of Esther; there are chicken feathers nailed to the wall.

I am surprised by the anguished moans of a man, coming from right outside. I follow them until I find him. I know his name is Dwayne; I do not know how I know this. He is grieving, crying. He removes his clothes and pours sand over himself as though it could cleanse him. Just as he collapses from exposure and exhaustion, a woman in a black veil, like Death’s bride, picks him up and holds him like a mother would. She guides him back into the town, into a room behind the chapel, which I can see now also contains a scarecrow. I watch her drown him in a tub for a few seconds before she starts to bathe him, lovingly cleaning his skin. He puts his head in her lap and she comforts him for a few moments, then leaves. I follow her, because she can see me.

We are back in the desert somehow, and this dark bride holds out her hand. Of course, I take it, and am led into a darkened room. She lets me sit and takes my hands, reading the lines in my palms, caressing them gently. Removing my mask, she stands close to me and strokes my face, then opens my eyes wide between her fingers, looking into them, beyond them, into my mind, her own eyes like two little moons.

She embraces me and, with a voice the colour of music, tells me about a little girl who was terrified of the light. She prayed to God to plunge the world into darkness. She prayed to the moon and to the stars each night.

I am blindfolded again and led by the hand around and around in a dizzying, supernatural game of Blindman’s Buff. “Mothers told their children to beware of the Sandman,” she hisses. I am spun, around, around. “But I stayed up and waited for him. I was not afraid.” Around and around. “And when He saw me He thanked me.” We stop suddenly. “But the moon was nothing but dead wood. And the earth is dead. And the silence is the darkness. The darkness is the silence.” The blindfold is slipped off and I am quickly masked and pushed out into the desert.

I am learning powerful things, things no man or woman should know. But I am neither man, nor woman. I am just eyes without a face.

Suddenly, in the desert appears a man with golden eyes and olive skin. He is dressed in rags and he dances like water. I follow him down into the town and dance with him among the trees. He is a sprite, and gravity is of no consequence to him. He holds up the Death tarot card and brings it to my face, then comes close enough to kiss me. His eyes are made of flames and they hold me captive, I cannot help but look into their light. He laughs and runs off, dancing in the night. I chase him until he vanishes into thin air, leaving me alone amid a sea of ghosts.

Sadness is a worm, and it has started to burrow its way into my thoughts. I wander around aimlessly, thinking of the sky and the moon; thinking of heaven and hell and light and darkness. Mostly, I think of the desert. I am drawn to the desert, but I do not go back there just yet. Something else is calling me, drawing me in like a magnet.

In the bar, I watch an impossibly beautiful man in drag as the man he loves spurns him. He is the picture of heartbreak as he slouches towards his hotel room. I follow closely behind. I learn his name is Conrad as he attempts to seduce another ghost, who remains stoic and does not take his hand. Rejected, Conrad quickly changes into a suit and rushes into Temple Studios for his next gig: magician. I watch him perform an old trick, then follow him into his dressing room. He creates a Rorschach test and shows it to me: it looks like two birds on branches. I follow him onto the film set, and sit and watch him work. He looks at me from time to time – we have become friends, this beautiful man and his ghost.

As filming wraps, he is ordered by the director to pay a visit to Studio 8. He appears appalled, but he has no choice. He holds my hand, lacing his fingers with mine, and leads me into his trailer. We sit on his bed and my mask comes off. Whispering, he tells me the story of a little boy who was always so sad. He went to the moon, but it was just a rotten piece of wood; then he went to the sun, which was nothing but a dead sunflower. Suddenly, he notices a ball of red string behind me. He picks up a dim torch and together, holding each other, we follow the red string outside, down a ramp, and into a large dark room. The string begins to move and Conrad stumbles, accidentally shining his light upon a dead white horse. I gasp and he quickly ushers me to a door. “The whole world is inside out! I’ll get you safely out of here,” he says, quickly putting my mask back on and pushing me out into the light. The door slams shut, and I know he has not survived whatever dark forces lurked there.

I have lost too many companions, and I begin to feel I am bad luck. I float back to the desert and spend some time walking in the sand. I sit in it and let it slip through my fingers. It is warm and soothing.

I feel a little less cursed as I find my way back into town. I am drawn to a little toyshop and its keeper, Mr Tuttle. He is young and new to the town. He paints pictures and plays games with the locals, but he is an outsider. He cannot see me, but I can see him. I look over his shoulder as he watches a fight break out, and hides in the safety of his shop. He is afraid, and so am I. Everything feels wrong. The night feels like day and the heat feels cold and I want to hide away in this toyshop, the only safe haven I have found.

Eventually, Mr Tuttle ventures out again and runs into somebody he knows. He asks after his daughter, Faye, and says he has just the thing to cheer her up. While he goes into his store to fetch a doll, whom he says reminds him of “Mary”, the other man runs off. Hurt, Mr Tuttle hides in his shop again. He fetches a small pot of paint, as he would like to make the doll’s lips redder. “Mary,” he mumbles again. To his surprise the paint pot contains dark ash. He tips it onto a piece of paper and spreads it around, blackening his hand. The ashes move into the shape of a full moon and two crescents. Tuttle looks at the doll in disbelief: the doll is lit up and looks menacingly at him.

The toyshop is no longer safe.

He still cannot see me, but I have begun to see the world through his eyes, although I have far more knowledge of it than he does. The sadness of it overwhelms me: this childlike man in his toyshop, trapped in a world gone completely mad. I want to reach out and hold him. I want to comfort him. I am not allowed. So I cry, big wet tears. I cry, I am shaken by sobs, I am helpless. Other ghosts have begun to gather in his small shop and I want to chase them away, to protect him. “The shop is closed. Everyone out,” he spits out. I start to leave but he takes my hand and asks me to stay with him. He locks the door. Outside, ghosts are peering through the window, knocking on the glass. He screams at them to leave and takes me behind his counter. We crouch, staying low.

“Something bad is happening. I keep having visions, and I think I’ve found a way to stop it,” he explains, looking at me pleadingly. “But I need somebody to help me. Will you help me?” I nod. Of course I will. I have fallen in love with him, deeply in love with him. I want to carry him away to the desert, where at least it is warm. Instead, he unmasks me and leads me through a low passageway into a dank room underground; the smell of bodily fluids and faeces and rust is pungent. His beautiful blue eyes take on the darkness as he pushes me into a chair. My heart breaks – not my darling Mr Tuttle. Please let him remain unblemished.

“Do you smell that?” He asks. I nod. “It is the smell of blood and sweat and piss and shit. Human and animal. But here, we live.”

I am mourning him.

“In the beginning, animal and man were equal. We knew sometimes we served them, and sometimes they served us.” He gesticulates as he speaks, his fingers doing a wild dance between my face and his. “But we perverted that. We thought ourselves better than them. We became their masters. But we didn’t understand that man. was. still. animal.” He is rubbing the palm of my hand with his thumbs. His voice is a threat and I am scared. Overhead, the only light bulb in the room flickers for a moment as he talks about the red moon. My heart skips a beat. “But sacrifices have to be made. Don’t they?” I nod, dumbly, and the next thing I know, he is dipping his hand into a vat of thick, dark blood and smearing it over my hand and up my arm. He holds my hand, weaves his fingers with mine. The blood makes wet, sopping noises as it drips to the floor.

He presses his face against mine and begins to chant something I don’t quite understand as he pulls me out of the chair, and together we smear the walls of the room with blood. I cannot decide whether I am let down or excited. Or both. We repeat this action, and then he rinses my hands with water. “Well, that’s sure to have done something!” he exclaims, the boyish grin I had fallen for now back on his face. He pushes me out of the room into the bar and once again I am alone, my hands red with blood which will not wash away, my mask stained and gory. I stumble toward the bartender and he raises his eyebrows at me, eyeing my hands, which I hold out in shame. I don’t know what I have just done.

I run to the fountain in the square and kneel to wash my hands in the cold water. The red won’t wash off, no matter how hard I try. I panic, completely immersed in this universe and its broken physics, until a handsome security guard helps me up and leads me down into a trailer park, where I see what my little ritual has led to: I watch a woman stab her drunk lover with a pair of stolen scissors and dump him in a lake.

I feel guilty and tired. I don’t want to be a ghost anymore. I want to be real again and it is a relief to put my mask away, sweat matting my hair, and step out into the cold London air.

But even now, I can only think of golden eyes, and bloodied hands, and all that sand, and I know I will go back to that world again as soon as I can. It is a part of me now. The darkness is the silence; the silence is the darkness.

10 Comments
  • Miriam
    November 21, 2013

    I’m breathless

    • admin
      November 21, 2013

      You’d love it, Mir. It’s only on until the end of the year :(

  • Keri
    November 26, 2013

    Wow – what a beautiful, beautiful post!

    I went to my first performance on Saturday, and was pulled away by Andy for a slow dance right at the end of the evening (post-finale). You *know* it’s all an act, but the feeling you get when they unmask you is just indescribable – you feel naked and it’s so incredibly intimate, and you’re with a stranger than you 100% know and 100% don’t know at the same time.

    • admin
      December 6, 2013

      Thank you for taking the time to read it. Yes, you know it’s all theatre, but I always feel vulnerable when my mask comes off, like I’m an accomplice.

  • Jonathan
    November 26, 2013

    I have to congratulate you on producing an extraordinary description of an extraordinary theatrical work.

    • admin
      December 6, 2013

      What a lovely compliment. Thank you so much for reading it.

  • Richard Doumeng
    November 26, 2013

    I saw Drowned Man almost one month ago and I both think and talk about it every day…still! If I didn’t live in the Caribbean, I’d gone back every week til the end of the run! Way back in my student days I acting and writing were my obsessions. Attending countless dramas, musicals, one man/woman shows, experimental…you name it performances; The Drowned Man is the single most conscious altering theatrical experience of my life…57 years. SEE IT NOW or should say LIVE IT NOW

    • admin
      December 6, 2013

      I tend to go once every fortnight – it costs as much as a night out in London would anyway, and it’s infinitely more fun. I was very active on the theatre circuit in Malta too, so this show is a real joy to me and, as you said, “the single most consciousness-altering theatrical experience” I have ever had. I’m so glad they’ve extended it.

  • David
    November 27, 2013

    Beautifully evocative of the atmosphere! I’d visit weekly were it not for the expense! You had a much more personal experience than I. No one removed my mask, took me alone and touched me! My overarching feeling was that of being an invisible voyeur. Ghost describes it perfectly! There were two categories of ‘ghost’. The audience/visitors/dreamers and the actors/dream figures. I felt as if I was a ghost drifting between life and the afterlife and the actors ghosts condemned to play out vignettes of their tragic lives over and over, vainly seeking an elusive resolution. As I drifted, I came upon the deserted scenes of a once vibrant world. Occasionally, the ghosts of that life would return to the scene acting out the moments of a life that haunted their souls, over and over, in a false hope of redemption.
    Truly a haunting experience that got under my skin and infiltrated my dreams.

    • admin
      December 6, 2013

      Thanks for reading, David. I’m sorry you didn’t get the personal touch, but even without the 1:1s the show is an absolute joy. I would recommend going again as it gets better each time you visit, because you always have more and more knowledge. It’s like piecing together a puzzle.

      As for the ghostly ‘categories’ – I completely agree! I found myself thinking exactly that during my first journey through the studios.

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