Lost in London: The Drowned Man [by James Wenley]
Theatre has a tendency to interrogate its own relevance. Every so often there is a new grand declaration that theatre is dying, maybe even already dead. We need new forms cry the Konstantins, though the basic narratives have remained the same since the ancients. Against competing entertaining options and greying audiences, one response has been to push away from the black box which dominates modern theatre. In its place, we get a sort of total-theatre, an all-consuming, immersive experience where different demands are placed on the spectator.
The latest in this trend in London is Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, which I caught on the tail-end of my London jaunt in July. As I walked through a huge building, converted into the film-production set of this show, I felt like I was in an intense dream state. Active, with all my senses on high-alert, the combination of moody light, sound, motion, and unexpected discoveries propelled me past the fabric of my own reality and into some alternate space and time. It was a confronting, confusing and invigorating experience. Is this what the future of theatre feels like?
Aucklanders have got a double-taster of this form through Apocalypse Z (where he tried to survive Zombie attacks), and Like There’s No Tomorrow (where we joined a hedonistic after-ball party). While the essential ideas of this type of theatre are nothing new (there are echoes of an Artaud and Grotowski, and one could look back to the community participation of the Medieval Cycles among others), Punchdrunk have popularised a recognisably 21st Century version and brand. The company have been darlings of New York with Sleep No More, a take on Macbeth taking place in multiple rooms at a hotel at the same time. The Drowned Man, in collaboration with the National Theatre, represents their home-coming and their biggest show yet. Inspired by Georg Buchner’s unfinished and fragmented Woyzeck, a huge former Royal Mail building (200,000 square feet) by Paddington Station has been converted into the film studio of Temple Studios. London reviews reflected an element of ‘seen-it- before’, the company no longer as cutting edge now they are several shows in. Other comments reflected the struggle about what was actually going on. But for a first timer like me, the experience was revelatory.
It is mind-blowing when conceiving the amount of moving parts it takes to make the show run each night. It starts with an army of ushers who corral the hundreds of participants each night (up to 600 of us). There are 40 or so performers in the show. When you’re in, the level of set-dressing is astounding. Not only do we walk around the sound-stages of the 1962 film studio, there are multiple levels of the building to explore which also take in the surrounding areas outside the studio (which we are warned are “dangerous at night”). There are various bars, shops, a cinema, even an eerie desert with sand that we trudge through. Actors on the film shoot return to their houses nearby. The light is dimmed and controlled, and together with the constant filmic soundtrack, changes where you are in the building, and underscores the action.
I opted to buy a premium ticket, which gives me a separate exclusive entrance to the show as well as an extra preshow (how could I resist?). We’re given information cards detailing the tragic love of two couples in the show. We are welcomed warmly by the Film Studio representative, who invites to the wrap-party of a “film for our times”. In the meantime, there is still some filming to go, and we’re teased that there are new film techniques they are pioneering with this picture. Our group participate in a film studio ritual, where our fortunes are read. We are asked to place our hand on a card, and focus on our deepest desire, for they might come true tonight. He flips my card to reveal the Hermit, fitting, as I seem to have been the only person to have come by myself. Before we enter the studios proper, we are asked to don alien duck-like masks, a staple of Punchdrunk shows.
You are free to roam wherever you like in The Drowned Man, and in this show truly no audience member has the same experience as another, or even the same narrative. We find ourselves first in an empty dressing room. What do I do now? Soon, two girls arrive. One strips and changes. One begins to leave, so I follow her, but she returns with a drink. Now the second one is off, and I follow out of the dressing rooms and into a menacing forest. She meets a man, and they begin an intensely passionate dance, travelling through the trees and up a hill (yes, a hill). She pulls out a pair of scissors behind her, and stabs the man. Some of the audience watching follow her as she darts away. A woman, wearing a blue dress, picks up the scissors, with seeming delight. I follow her, but she disappears.
What had just happened? I had little clue. One could easily get lost during The Drowned Man, both in the building itself (which I certainly did), but also in meaning, as strange scenes played out in front of you. You can get really close to the actors, and their speaking style encourages it, talking softer than normal speaking volume. But fitting for a world of cinema, it is in the visual that the meaning can be discovered. The Drowned Man speaks in the language of dance, with many vigorous duets between characters taking place on top of bar counters or caravans. Sexually charged, dance seems to open up the inner desire of these characters.
By accident, I find a strategy that serves me well in the first half of The Drowned Man: if I follow one person throughout, I find a continuous narrative. Walking through the studios, I encounter a dance scene between a cowboy and two ladies. Despite the best efforts of one of the girls to get his attention, he clearly prefers one over the over. Empathising perhaps with the underdog, I follow the girl he rejected (who just also happened to be the cutest). I find myself with a few other audience members inside her house where she changes and puts on a nice dress. From a letter in her room, I learn her name is Faye.
Faye desires to be part of the film. As she clutches her headshot, I follow her to an audition. Her face is heavily scrutinised by the two men. She gets up on stage where she has to sing and dance, and of the men joins her, and dances provocatively (and unprofessionally). “You’ll do”.
Faye is ecstatic, and I can’t help but be lifted by her buzz, a huge smile spreading on my own face. She proudly announces to people as she passes that “I got the part”. She’s dancing with joy, I love this! She kisses the big poster of a movie star on the street wall, and brushes her hand against his name. This could be her.
I continue to follow her, joined by other masked audience members who come and go. I have to hurry sometimes to keep up, and occasionally come close to losing her. I watch her doing her film scene – a chorus girl in a Grease like Musical, and see her dance and flirt with quite a number of guys.
One goes home with her. She turns her back, and starts to strip sensually. He holds up a card, and backs out. She realises he is no longer there.
Then, I experienced the most confronting moment of my theatrical life. EVERYONE ELSE LEFT THE ROOM. It was just me, and her, in her room. For the first time in the show, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I could no longer rely on the safe remove of the voyeur. I was exposed. With rising adrenalin, I resisted the instinct to flee, as the others had done. So I stay, and the actress gives the performance of a lifetime. Devastated, she sinks to her chair, and tears roll out. It was a moment of intense intimacy and vulnerability that I felt an intruder on. Eventually, she picks herself back up, and we both venture out again into the ‘public’. Later, a new day begins for her. She’s back in the same clothes she was when I found her. She meets her friend on the street, and they meet the cowboy, and they dance again… I had gone on a full cycle, and felt Faye’s highs and lows alongside her, a comment on illusory dreams of fame and illusory relationships?
As Faye’s story revolved again elsewhere, the second-half of the show was more jumbled for me, unable to find a narrative to cling onto. This was where I chased the second strategy of exploring the space and seeing what came to you. I came upon the blue dress woman for a time, but she disappeared once more. My wonderings added to the mystery and unsettling nature of the shoot. I walked into a room to find a doctor drawing on a topless woman behind a cinema screen. The walls of this room were lined with strange patient notes. A male actor is abused by the blue dress woman and another. He gets beaten up with baseball bats by the film producer and people in goblin masks. There are effigies to deceased actors. There’s some sort of dark conspiracy to be uncovered here.
I continue to explore nooks and crannies, disorientated and directionless. Eventually I return near to where I started. It’s completely empty. Suddenly, lots of people begin to arrive. Streams of people led on by characters. There’s a man, shirtless, maybe a writer? Wait… this is the man who get stabbed. Sure enough, there is the woman. Everyone surges to watch as they dance. It is strange knowing what is to come, I feel like I am reliving a dream. Then, a voice: “That’s a wrap”. The actors give us a jubilant hoe-down dance. I spot some I had met along the way but there are some I barely register at all. I find Faye. She is happy.
The last image is of two couples finding their lovers drowned. These must have been the characters on the cards at the beginning – the male and female Woyzeck leads. I’m amused as I realised that I didn’t follow their narratives at all.
What impresses me the most about The Drowned Man is the world-building. Each character has their own narrative and journey. There is no “off-stage” life, each are the main character in their own stories. I was so happy that I found Faye, but who knows what else I missed?
The masks embolden you, a feeling of anonymity that makes you less anxious of other audience members scrutinising you. It also gives us our own distinctive roles. It as if we are indeed like aliens, beamed back into 1962, observing behaviours and trying to make sense of them. Artistic Director Felix Barrett likens the masks to cameras, Felix Barrett, artistic director says: “The audience is the camera floating around this dream… all we are doing is presenting loads of content like the unedited rushes for them to cut together.” ()
I cannot definitively say what was going on at Temple Studios. I cannot definitively say what it all meant. I have my theories. Did the “new film techniques” mean that the cameras, hidden, were always rolling ala Synecdoche New York? Like the continuous theatre conceit, was everything the film? Were we actors in the film too? Or had reality and illusion irreparably blurred together?
For three hours, I lived and breathed the world of Temple Studios. It felt like I had spent days there. Any longer, and you get the feeling you too could lose your own sense of reality, trapped in a world of movie bigwigs and strange onlookers wearing white masks. It’s a show that you’d want to come back to again and again, to find new clues and new storylines, and make new sense of the expansive world.
Unfortunately, my London trip was at an end. I’ve been able to relive the show only through other online blogs, who speak of things I wish I’d been able to see.
And it’s in this that maybe the future of this form lies. Theatre becomes more than just a forgettable night of entertainment that begins with lights up, and ends with light down. It becomes something to return to, to engage with, and to invest in. The Drowned Man mixes theatre, dance, even cinema with an emphasis on the individual, subjective experience that does seem peculiarly of the 21st Century. My suspicion though is that it’s in the creation of communities that this form will best thrive, a coming together of people, making connections.
Until next time London.