I first heard of Punchdrunk through their production, Sleep No More – a re-imagining of Macbeth, where audience members donned masks and uncovered the performance across a set that spanned multiple floors within an abandoned hotel in New York. The British company’s US debut was a gamer changer, becoming a hit with critics, fans of the genre, and crossing into the mainstream. It even went on to be featured on hit US TV show Gossip Girl – note, masks work really really well for plot contrivances in teen TV drama!
I’d heard so much about Sleep No More but never managed to see it, so I was super excited to find out that Punchdrunk were to stage their biggest production to date, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, in London, in conjunction with the National Theatre. Very little information was given away in advance, other than the fact that it was inspired by the Georg Büchner play Woyzeck, that the setting was an old Hollywood studio, and that the location was somewhere in the W2 postcode area. Vintage Hollywood, pivotal modernist text, like-minded pals, west coast main line to London – this was my perfect summer holiday set-up with expectations turned up to eleven!
It’s quite daunting making your way to The Drowned Man performance space, with little idea of what lies ahead of you. You are handed two things on arrival – an introductory leaflet that gives you the set up for a few key characters (I found this handy – but it did feel like an add-on) and a white mask (same as Sleep No More) – before being taken into a lift with a disconcerting host, who gives you a nervy jolly jolt before letting you loose into the world of Temple Studios.
Taking place over four levels, the recreation includes both inside the gates of the once glamourous film studio, with dressing rooms and sets from film productions; as well as outside the gates of the studio where many of the lowly paid workers and Hollywood dreamers reside. The volume of spaces to discover and level of detail is astounding and works perfectly to immerse you in the world – you could spend your entire three hours simply exploring the detailed installations.
As you leaf through props and rooms for clues of meaning, you are subtly guided towards areas where performance is taking place by lighting and music and by following the mass movement of the masked.
The performances are played out through movement and dance, which I hadn’t realised before attending, but makes perfect sense as the best way for the roving audience to view and also as the actors, who are rarely off stage, must be taking their cues from the music. I often found it hard to decipher much more than passion, rage or jealousy from the actors’ movements, but then again, those were the main themes, and more detailed insights into the characters’ psyches didn’t seem necessary.
There were some astonishing set-pieces, some of which I saw, and some of which I didn’t, but heard about in the pub/debrief later. One in particular that stands out for me was the diva actress, Dolores, who is devastatingly cast to play the role of the old woman forever more, undergoing the heartbreaking transformation before your eyes. Many of the scenes had an overtly David Lynch quality to them and the nightmarish idea of being trapped in the Twin Peaks black lodge came to mind a number of times (one of our group found it, at points, too plagiaristic of Lynch).
The whole experience of The Drowned Man can be described as dreamlike with themes of characters not being in control of their own destiny coming through, which I enjoyed considering against the parallels of how free audience members were to each decide their own path.
My overall feelings on The Drowned Man are divided. It was an incredible experience like no other I’ve ever had, but I think I enjoyed the conversations I had afterwards more than the performance itself, as we shared our individual experiences and attempted to piece it all together.
I also felt simultaneously overwhelmed and unsatisfied. It was as if there was too much detail to absorb and decipher, that, as it went on, I ran out of space in my brain, resulting in previous scenes and potential insights slipping out of my head. But its that vision, breadth and ambition, which caused my feelings of overload, that makes me want to get straight on the next train down to London to experience it all over again, or differently again – as it would be!
Check out the trailer here, and if you’re planning to go along, then here are my precursory tips:
Relax; don’t worry that you are missing out or doing it wrong because you’re not; find the bar that opens at the halfway point and have a beverage to regroup your senses before heading back out there; don’t wear glasses if possible; know that it is best undertaken as a solitary experience, but go armed with friends who you can discuss it with afterwards over and over and over again.