Rejecting theatrical convention, Punchdrunk’s latest offering, The Drowned Man, forces Emily Hardy to reject conventional reviewing.
What not to do at The Drowned Man: a Hollywood Fable
It seems only appropriate when confronted with a masterpiece such as this, that we, mere intruders of the seedy underworld, play our part accordingly. If you hope to cross over into the world of Temple Pictures, inspired by Büchner’s Woyzeck, and meet the dreamers who exist at the fringes of Hollywood, be warned: There’s a right and a wrong way to do Punchdrunk…
What not to do:
Do not take a bag, not even your phone… In fact, don’t even wear a watch: Amidst the chaos, at the entrance to the vast disused building is a cloakroom (and a toilet). Liberate yourself from external distractions; it’s nice! There’s enough to distract you on the inside: 6 floors of rooms, corridors, annexes and every square meter of the vast space bustling with activity. Each room is furnished and adorned, textured and scented with upmost precision and attention to detail, courtesy of design team Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns.
Freed from our daily baggage, (and I’ll admit, I was reluctant to go without lip-balm for three hours) it is possible to forget all about Paddington, and London, and 2013, for what has been created here has hallucinatory properties and the potential to transport even those whose instincts, like mine, lean towards resistance or cynicism.
Consequently, the glare of an iPhone or the smug smirk of an audience member from beneath a lifted mask shatters the illusion in place, diminishing the theatrical satisfaction – an experience comparable to finding Narnia in your wardrobe, instantly reduced to a day at the London Aquarium or a trip to Tesco.
Do not talk or even attempt to stay with your friends/partners etc. (Incidentally, The Drowned Man does not make for an ideal ‘date’ scenario.) Making and challenging your own decisions is all part of the adventure so steer away from the crowd and seek your own fractured understanding of the narrative, otherwise you might as well just be commuting at rush hour.
When you find yourself alone, in the dark, squinting into rooms through concealed doors, wondering if you’ll ever make it back to where you started, disorientation prompts a dark psychological examination of self. The epic, filmic score might be drowned out by your cacophonous internal monologue. You may attempt to rationalise the fear, question what there is to be frightened of; it’s just a play, right?
Or, you might even experience that common childlike frustration of missing out on something, wondering continuously if you’ve chosen the most interesting route. Your concerns are, of course, fruitless; the characters’ wordless stories unfold simultaneously through gripping, brave and violent physical theatre and the narrative eventually emulsifies regardless of the order you catch it in.
You could connect with two characters or ten depending on where you wind up. Will you collide with the protagonist in the hallway as he flees a crime scene? Will you stroll upon adultery, despair, murder? Will you learn something about yourself? Dare to disconnect from the people you walk in with. You will survive three hours alone and it will be all the more satisfying when the piece reaches its astounding finale and you are left to compare your findings and experiences.
Punchdrunk, since forming in 2000, have unabashedly muddied the theatrical waters and, in this mega collaboration with The National Theatre, have redefined the form and its capabilities entirely. So, go. Marvel. Dance. And if you don’t come out with shoes full of sand, bark in your hair, drowning in sweat and emotionally exhausted, then you’re not doing it right.