Thursday, September 12, 2013

‘The Drowned Man’ by Punchdrunk, 11th September 2013

Being in The Drowned Man is like exploring a stranger's dream.  This is less a theatrical production and more a slice of some weird alternative reality that’s collapsed into our own.  I love immersive theatre: the demolition of the boundary between audience and action, leaving you to construct a personal narrative based on your own experiences.

The Drowned Man occupies an enormous ex-Post Office sorting depot right next to Paddington Station.  Punchdrunk have transformed the interior of this unprepossessing building into a mausoleum to the Golden Age of Hollywood.  This hallowed time and place occupies a very special place in the popular consciousness; a glitzy town full of 'man’s men' movie stars: Bogart, Peck, Cagney; Wayne; Cooper; Tracy.  And the women!  This was the age of true glamour, dotted with sequins, encircled in feather boas, dramatic lids seductively fluttering under perfectly coiffed locks.  All of this wreathed in a haze of swirling cigarette smoke and washed down with neat whiskey.  

These people were the top of the heap, leading a life of extravagance and hedonism.  But this coin has a flip side.  For every superstar there’s a thousand starving, out of work actors, a thousand young girls labouring under the delusion that “they’re going to be the one”, all setting out to live impossible fantasies; all ripe for exploitation.  The Drowned Man is Hollywood dream becoming fevered nightmare, the plughole around which the bums of Hollywood congregate and spiral further and further into the abyss, suffocating, drowning, in mad excess and poverty.

You experience all this as a drifting, faceless cipher.  On entering the complex, everybody is given a face-concealing mask, concealing both their appearance and emotions.  We’re instructed to remain silent throughout the performance, encouraged to leave our friends behind and then head off into the darkness, exploring as we see fit.  It’s surprising how liberating the simple act of donning a mask can be – you’re immediately freed from societal trappings, a sense of true equality with those around you.

Once you’ve been released into the space you have a huge number of options.  Throughout the space there are 20 or so actors all living out affecting psychodramas, interacting with each other and moving around the building.  Each one is fantastically performed: the drama intensified by allowing us the choice of following the performer around or abandoning them.  As far as I could tell, these individual performances don’t loop – I spent about half an hour following a woman in an blue angora coat around as she became progressively more miserable, drunker and abused – hiding from cops in a paranoiac terror, strangling people who tried to attack her and weeping over letters she’d written to a lost lover.  

These people are ghostly; drifting through traumatic psychodramas – sinking into depression and desperation as fate gives them a swift kick in the shins.  The happiest I saw anyone was manage was in pathetic, doomed flirtations with each other.  As you watch all this play out it’s surreal to look around at your companions in the audience – a sea of expressionless, blank and super spooky looking gazes.  It’s then that you realise the truth of the situation.  The people we’re silently watching aren’t the ghosts – we are. 

While the people acting out this drama are stuck on rails, we’re free to move as we please – free of barriers of space and time, able to drift through any door or into anyone’s life as we see fit.  This exploration was undoubtedly my favourite part of the experience, I loved it when I managed to dodge the crowds and ended up on my own in some obscure, lost room packed full of discarded, dusty ephemera.

Being alone in The Drowned Man is a disconcerting experience.  The place is very low lit and smoky, lit by spotlights that obscure paths, either blinding you as you move towards them or casting long distorted shadows as you move away.  There’s an omnipresent sonic tapestry woven throughout the building, either an ambient soundtrack of low industrial sounds or spooky, slightly distorted 50s ballads.  It’s a spookhouse ambience, but The Drowned Man doesn’t aim for cheap jump-scares, but instead an all-consuming dread.  

When walking through the basement, a maze of corridors with tiny rooms branching off I felt as if I was trapped in a Silent Hill videogame. Each door I opened led to some dusty workroom full of rusty cages, or half-finished latex faces, or, somehow most spookily of all, a room with just red threads dangling from the ceiling, each with a name attached to them. There’s lots and lots of rooms like these, all stuffed with authentic looking retro ephemera, desks arranged as if the inhabitants had just popped out to the shops to buy cigarettes.  The attention to detail is absolutely astonishing, sit down at one of these desks and you can read the files that were being worked on, peruse the stacks of hand-written paperwork.  Open the desk drawers and you’ll find more to look at – the illusion almost fractal in how deep it can get – you feel like a mortician delving elbow deep into the decomposing corpse of Hollywood.

Some of these places are really hard to find, for example: walking through a floor full of sand I noticed a tunnel in one of the dunes.  Bending down I could see light faintly coming from around a corner.  I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through the tunnel, feeling a genuine sense of apprehension and fear (and, admittedly also living out my fantasy of crawling through an air vent).  After a few twists and turns the tunnel ended in a warped distillery, huge glass bulbs suspended in the air, chemical notebooks scattered across surfaces.  Where was I?  What is this place for?  Am I supposed to be here?

The Drowned Man takes influence from the work of David Lynch in numerous ways, be it the Twin Peaks black and white chequered floors and red curtains of the basement killing floor, the faded glory Hollywood aesthetic of Mulholland Drive and the sheer barking mad tumble down the rabbit hole weirdness of Inland Empire.  Lynch’s narratives are often fractured, characters existing in a dreamy vagueness – trying to hammer it into a cohesive narrative a fool’s errand.  The Drowned Man works on much the same level; there may be a through line of drama (and apparently it's based on Woyzeck, but I must have missed those bits), but this is best experienced on your own terms, mixing together a very personal cocktail of regret, glamour, suicide and doomed love.

It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in London lately, and certainly the best immersive theatre I’ve yet experienced.  Every visit to it will be unique, and I'm dead certain there's a ton of things I missed. If you live in London and you don’t go to this you’re a mug.

You can book tickets here.  Currently the show is running until the end of the year.  Go go go!

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