Punchdrunk — The Drowned Man (2013)
In a disused former Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington Station something strange and wonderful is happening. The shell of the building has been resurrected, and exists now (at least temporarily) in a patchwork of guises: a 1960s Los Angeles film studio; a stretch of woodland populated with caravans; the setting of a desert funeral, its unmoving attendees stuffed with straw. These environs, meticulously realised and possessed of the unsettling ability to shift one-into-another, are the set of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man, an epic work of promenade theatre employing a cast of 32 to tell numerous intertwining stories over three head-spinning hours.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like The Drowned Man. During my time wandering inside it a number of other works of art in various media came to mind: David Lynch is an obvious touchstone (perhaps particularly 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE) for the tonal sense of magic hour dread; there is something akin to the feeling of being lost in the collapsing text of Danielewski’s byzantine novel House of Leaves (2000); some video games have begun to stretch into this off-kilter experiential realm, such as Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero (both 2013). Ultimately, however, this intricately constructed piece of immersive performance art is powerful in ways that those other media cannot approximate.
The strength of theatre is the fact of it being live, happening before you within parameters of time and space which it creates for itself. Punchdrunk’s reputation is for refiguring those parameters so as to include the audience as a vital axis of the story’s telling.
Punchdrunk is about empowering the audience. The more curious they are, the more they are rewarded.
— Felix Barrett (Artistic Director, Punchdrunk)
Upon arrival at a performance of The Drowned Man visitors are instructed to be silent for the duration of the show, and are issued with a mask. It does not take long for these simple things to radically alter one’s experience. To have become one of hundreds wearing an identical white visage, and to be tasked with nothing more than moving silently, is equal parts liberating and unsettling. This is the skewed starting point from which your journey branches - and no two will be alike.
The experience of voyeurism is a powerfully odd thing. You might find yourself one of a handful of white masks in a hotel room, watching someone do their make-up. You may be alone in the diner, reading the menu or the pin-board full of notes by the telephone whilst the waitress polishes glasses, seemingly oblivious to your presence. It doesn’t take long to get used to being a ghost.
One of the more Lynchian moments I witnessed was a dancer auditioning on a checkerboard stage. To her mind her audience is one seated individual who sits in a leather chair sipping from a tumbler. In fact, however, she is surrounded by more than a hundred of us, white masks lined up in silence and stillness not just in front of the stage but to the side, and even from the back.
During my visit I was witness to a few of these set pieces. As you wander the labyrinthine sets you often catch sight of an unmasked face, or hear a voice around some corner and know that you have stumbled across some unfolding moment - a piece of the larger story. Many audience members tend to latch on to a character and follow them from scene to scene, perhaps switching to another character if the fancy takes them, all the the while shining a little more light on the arcs of these presented lives. Some of my favourite moments came in the wake of those scenes, after the audience had moved on - lingering in the empty section of set and examine its contents: read handwritten notes from one character to another, look through the press clippings a starlet has chosen to deface, peruse a collection of props neatly arranged and labelled in glass cabinets. Even wandering in this relatively aimless manner I came across a line dance, a drowning, an overdose… and many more. One of the few things I knew of the show before attending was to be wary of its scale:
Remember there is always one more floor than you think there is. I thought it was quite an experience, and one with moments of real jaw-dropping wonder.
As a visitor you are quickly relieved of the idea that you will be able to take in all that The Drowned Man has to offer. I seemed to spend the first 45 minutes on a single floor, and even then without venturing into some of its corners. A cinema, a drug store, a bar, hotel rooms…. The moment of arriving to another floor and setting foot on sand for the first time was a small revelation to me: there were worlds contained here, and without intention or comprehension I had penetrated some barrier. It felt like this from one level to the next: from the soaring tress of the wood-chip floored forest to the depths of the basement with its heavy doors that close with an unsettling finality, leaving you in tiny rooms of authentic dankness, lone props on pedestals your only company.
By virtue of its sheer size there are corners of these worlds that feel untouched - places you find yourself in alone. I had this experience in a room behind a curtain where a reel-to-reel tape intoned the voice of studio director Leland Stanford giving directions for what turned out to be a scene I would witness play out later on. Or at least, I believe it was later. The flow of time inside the world of the work seems disrupted. There are two stories playing out (at least, not to mention the innumerable, equally fascinating attendant narratives with which they touch), and your experience of them is dictated by your choice of how to move about the world Punchdrunk has created. “Tonight your bearing shapes your fate” as Stanford informs / warns you as you enter. You catch moments, run into characters, hear things in the distance wreathed in all of that fog, and you’re able to put some of it together. But what happened to whom and when, and why… these questions will likely remain unanswered when you emerge blinking into the London streets a few hours later feeling changed.
Whilst it wears film as a badge of influence, the piece takes joy in the freedom of eschewing that medium’s conventions of sequential narrative structure. Even the most well-realised world of the novel cannot supply the sensory experience of wandering around unguided, immersed in a truly altered reality, at liberty to inspect any of its minutiae that you choose. The closest experience perhaps is to be found in the realm of video games, where narrative can move at the player’s pace and exploratory freedom is accepted as the determining factor of the world-building enterprise. Even then, however, efforts will always fall short of the incomparable fidelity of this masterfully realised performance space, and the immaculate work of the players within it.
It’s about a heightened state of awareness.
If I hadn’t been convinced of the work’s singular brilliance by the sui generis experience of wandering within The Drowned Man as a whole, I most certainly was by one moment in particular. At one point I found myself at the back of a large group of white masks looking on as a dance number was filmed on one of the studio’s sets. I could hardly see anything and resorted to waiting in a hallway to see how the crowd would disperse. As I did so the character of The Seamstress walked past me and disappeared into a nearby doorway. Provoked by curiosity, and secure in my status as a phantom, I followed and found her attending to racks of costumes in the studio’s wardrobe department. I took to examining the room and was poking at shelves filled with shoes when she approached, looked me straight in the eye, and held out her hand. I had been a ghost for 90 minutes by this time, and this simple gesture so completely altered my perception of the role I was playing within the world of the performance that it took a few seconds and a raise of her eyebrows before I comprehended what was being asked of me. Taking The Seamstress’s hand I was led to a dressing room, the door to which she quickly locked behind us. Once we were alone she spoke to me, instructing me to sit, then to come closer, and then telling me that she was going to get me ready for my “next big scene”. She performed another simple action that again had the effect of changing my whole experience: she removed my mask and set it aside as she began to tell me what was needed - “a little to the eyes, something to the lips”. She took up a pinch of some substance from the make-up tray and began to rub it into my lips, all the time telling me that I reminded her of someone: of “the first painted queen”. Adding dabs of something black to the corners of my eyes she told me how people had said the queen had “promise in her lips, or poison”, and taking hold of my face she told me “but you know which it is don’t you?”. As whatever she had rubbed into my lips began to warm and tingle, The Seamstress turned my head so that I saw myself in the mirror for the first time, and as I did so the image changed revealing a face made of twigs.
These few minutes, behind a locked door, revealed to me the power of Punchdrunk’s art. The timing of it, how the music was made to crescendo at the correct moment, and how the special effect was triggered are parts of a mystery I have little interest in solving. The experience, to be that close to a performance, to be the only one being performed to, and what’s more to remain utterly convinced of it—to find not a hint of a crack in the artifice—was absolutely unlike any other interaction I have ever had with a work of art, and nothing short of astounding.
I haven’t been willing or able to put The Drowned Man out of my head since seeing it, and my post-show experience is characterised by contradictions. Many of the sets were so beautifully constructed and so richly detailed that I longed to be able to capture some of the images; at the same time, however, I’m keenly aware that the experience would have been greatly diminished by the permission to do so. Hundreds of ghosts with camera-phones would quickly dispel the show’s magical atmosphere. Similarly I am compelled by the concept of recreating that world, its characters and rhythms, in the form of a digital replica in which I would have unlimited time to walk around and make new discoveries. Yet, conversely, I’m in love with the mystery of the piece; the very fact of my experience’s incompleteness has a powerful romantic pull.
A few more hours in that awe inspiring place couldn’t hurt, however, and if the planned extension of the run goes ahead, I’ll certainly want to revisit Temple Studios.