It is very rare I find myself in the situation of being completely unable to review a show after watching it for the first time. Sometimes putting together a review can be a challenge because it is hard to remember details when I am watching a show I am completely unfamiliar with. But usually I have built up an opinion and know the reasons behind my views of the individual performances and the show as a whole.
And then I went to see The Drowned Man, the latest production by Punchdrunk. Actually the term “see” doesn’t do the show justice. You don’t go and see The Drowned Man. You experience it, you become a part of it, you dive into another world – and trust me, I am not exaggerating.
Set in Temple Studios – a fictional film studio – The Drowned Man is a promenade performance that lets the audience (who are wearing white masks throughout the performance) find their own path and explore the set, follow the performers and experience the story they tell through dance and acting up close.
The sets within the building represent internal and external locations within Temple Studios and the outskirts of the town nearby which it is situated. The two main stories mirror each other, both telling the story of a couple – one within Temple Studios and one living on the outskirts of the town. The main characters play out a tragic love story while the various supporting characters embellish the details of that story but also have some independent side-stories of their own. Many aspects of the narrative are based on Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck including the main themes.
It is hard to describe what it feels like to enter the set and start making your way through the different rooms in the film studio, the trailer park, the desert and such. It’s overwhelming and a bit scary and I admit I felt a bit lost during my first visit. The performance lasts for up to 3 hours which sounds like a lot of time but once you are inside Temple Studios you realise there is so much to see and 3 hours won’t even give you the chance to explore 25% of what the show has to offer. If I had to say how much of The Drowned Man I saw on my first visit my answer would be 5-10%. I spent a while following one of the main characters, explored two floors a bit, ran into some other characters and I was lucky enough to see both murders that happen in the show. But that’s about it – I didn’t even reach the basement floor and spent most of my time in town, mainly because I was drawn to a certain character as soon as I stumbled upon him (or better: as soon as he almost ran into me on his drunken walk around town) and decided to stick with him. But then that is what The Drowned Man is all about. It’s not about seeing the whole thing – it’s about finding your own path and having a unique and personal experience. If that means following a drunk character who staggers around town muttering abuse (and occasionally offers you a shot in the Saloon if you are lucky enough) then that is perfectly fine.
Since my first visit I have come back two times and each time I have been able to grasp more of the whole experience that is The Drowned Man. On my second visit I followed one character for his whole loop (each character’s story loop lasts an hour, then it starts all over again theoretically giving you the chance to follow three characters’ complete loop during one visit) and I was rewarded with both of his 1:1s. What is a 1:1 you will now ask? A lot of the characters have one or more scenes they act out with just one audience member, usually in a locked room. These 1:1s are a pretty intense experience. I won’t say what happened in my two 1:1s with Mr. Stanford – the character I followed first on my second visit or in my 1:1 with Badlands Jack – my favourite drunk town character (huge thumbs up to Sean Edwards who is so wonderfully physical in his portrayal of Badlands – I was completely in awe), as the show relies heavily on the mystery and secrecy surrounding it. Lets just say this much: If you have a problem with strangers heavily invading your personal space you might want to avoid the 1:1s. They are a nice opportunity to get rid of the mask for a while though as often the performers will take if off your face during the 1:1. Plus I have to say personally I loved being included in the character’s story for at least a few minutes no matter how creeped out I was – a 1:1 is a proper thrill, simple as that.
So should you go and experience The Drowned Man? Absolutely! Just don’t expect a normal theatre experience and go in there with an open mind and a healthy amount of curiosity. Don’t try and research the show too much beforehand – find your own way in there. The show encourages you to explore on your own and I can only tell you to go along with this. Don’t stick to your companions – wander off and enjoy 3 hours in another world, then meet your friends in the bar afterwards and compare your experiences.
I cannot recommend The Drowned Man highly enough. It is disturbing, a little creepy and odd in parts but it is also fascinating and slightly mind-blowing – all in all, an experience you don’t want to miss out on. The show is currently booking until May but an extension is likely. However, don’t leave it until last-minute because chances are high one visit won’t be enough.
For info and to book tickets visit http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable.
To find out more about Punchdrunk and their work go to http://punchdrunk.com.