james debate
james debate

Friday 27 September 2013

Directed by Felix Barrett, Maxine Doyle
Written by N/A
Starring Irrelevant
Theatre Punchdrunk for the National Theatre

the drowned man punchdrunk theatre

The newest production from the Punchdrunk theatre company is the talk of London at the moment. Either you want to go, or you've already been, or both. The company's uniquely immersive style of theatre production has long earned a cult-like following from devotees, and word-of-mouth is fast spreading to the uninitiated.

From the entrance of Temple Studios one immediately feels transported someplace else. All participants are handed masks and funnelled down a dark passage while ambient sounds play in the background. An uneasily grinning hostess greets you with a vague warning. The town is smoky and dilapidated. Walking into the world of The Drowned Man feels like a disturbing dream crossed with a drug trip. Over the course of the evening The Ephemeric went on to witness a murder in a sandy wilderness, an adulterous tryst in a smoky bar, a high school musical audition, and a funeral attended only by an audience stuffed with straw.

The idea behind a Punchdrunk production is that the story should be an interactive experience, rather than simply a passive observation of events. To this end the company has rented out a massive former sorting office, consisting of five floors, a good 40,000 square feet, and crafted a fully realised and immaculately detailed world in which the audience can immerse themselves. For example one floor has been converted into a dusty American village, with every building, every shop fully able to be explored, overflowing with detailed props, diaries, notebooks, photographs for the audience to explore and glean detail of the world around them. One floor, my particular highlight, has a fully functioning speakeasy-style bar complete with performers and a live band. In this world the story unfolds piece by piece, actors mingling with the audience and performing their roles at the appropriate time and place.

The concept alone, a story being told through personal experience and exploration rather than funnelled into the audience's attention, is worthy of credit. It's one thing to create a myopic picture of a fictional world on stage, where every member of the audience sees exactly the same thing and exactly what the director wants them to see. In that case the designers only have to worry about that tiny cross-section of the fiction. But to create the entire world around it, fully explorable and designed to accommodate every possible action of an unrestricted and therefore unpredictable audience is a simply staggering undertaking. The designers have to consider every detail not only of the action unfolding on stage, but of the entire world around them, whole towns and buildings full of it.

In that regard one might say this production has as much in common with an explorable medium like a videogame or a large-scale art installation than traditional theatre. Here every participant will have a unique experience, and no two people who see the Drowned Man, even on the same night, will have seen the same thing.

This has its drawbacks as well. Even after attending the show one will feel as though they have only experienced a small fraction of the story. One has to be in the right place at the right time to witness the action, and this inevitably creates tension between the desire to see everything and the desire to fully explore and lose oneself in the open environment. Worse still the sense of immersion is often broken by the large crowds of audience members loitering in a circle around the actors. The aim may be to fully integrate into the action, but at the end of the day most audience members are here to see a show, not become part of it. The trouble is that most of the environments, shops, offices, dressing rooms, are not places where it is natural for so many people to be, and so inevitably they will just end up standing in a large block. Arguably the only place where this immersion is not broken is in the bar, where audience members are free to grab a drink, find a table and much more naturally become a part of the scenery.

This also leads to the unusual dilemma: is the actual show any good? Or is it just the novelty and depth of content that makes The Drowned Man worthwhile? The story itself is fairly unremarkable, the acting unmemorable, and many of the individual performed set-pieces come close to pretentious, "interpretive" styles of acting, the surreal nature of which is both wholly unnecessary and highly immersion breaking.

The amazing thing is how little any of that bothers me. Ultimately this production is a primarily subjective experience. The immense enjoyment comes not so much from the content of the script as the subtext that we observe through our individual journeys. Trying to piece together the world in front of us, filling in the blanks with our own imagination, turns out to be a very rewarding form of narrative.

It is hard not to give The Drowned Man the highest of recommendations. It is both unique and bewildering, and attendees will go home feeling as though they have experienced something in a way that really no other theatre can match.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Developed by Rockstar North
Published by Rockstar Games
Genre Action-Adventure
Platform Xbox 360, PS3

Grand Theft Auto V earns a 0-star review on the basis that the Xbox 360 version of the game simply does not work. The disks are unreadable, exchanging them didn't help. A quick Google search reveals that this is a very common issue among Xbox 360 versions of the game, and until Rockstar release a patch the only fix is to exchange it and hope you get a slightly better copy.

There is no excuse for a company like Rockstar to release a shoddy product. Seriously I can understand a PC game not working where the developer has to try and accommodate a whole range of technical specifications, but one of the main selling points of consoles is that they are supposed to just work out of the box. The moral of the story is that if Rockstar are going to insist on shunning the PC at least make sure their god damn game works. I may consider re-reviewing at a later date but until then the game earns 0 stars.

Thursday 12 September 2013

Author Jonas Jonasson
Publisher Hesperus Press
Pages 400

hundred year old man window jonas jonasson scandinavian culture explosion

England prides itself as a nation that is notoriously hard to invade. Since the era of William the Conqueror no one has managed it, despite England's history of extensive warfare. Yet there are foreign forces in our midst right now, surreptitiously inflitrating our culture and assimilating our populace. The Scandinavians are here.

In recent years Scandinavian culture has been everywhere. Even before Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy conquered the world, we had the uniquely non-anglicised musical stylings of Sigur Rós topping the charts. Now it seems a month doesn't go by without some tv crime drama from our neighbours to the north becoming the next big thing on the air (or re-made into a stylistically consistent western equivalent for that matter). What all these all share is a singularly "high art" aesthetic, largely bleak and gritty, that has become the signature look of Scandinavian crime literature and film making in recent years.

In many ways then the success of Jonasson's novel runs against the cultural currents of the time; The Hundred Year Old Man has more in common with the serendipitous stylings of western comedy than one might expect. In particular the story and the main character's unlikely path of events seem highly reminiscent of Forrest Gump, a resemblance that can't be coincidental.

This fast-paced and light-hearted tale ties together the sprightly centenarian Alan Karlsson's adventure with a character history that sees Karlsson present at a variety of defining 20th century events and even influencing them directly. But far from the genre's typical dark tinge, events transpire in a wholly affable manner. Jonasson strikes the fine balance between quirky surrealism and relatable reality. One finds that the urge to keep reading is driven not by desire to reach the ending but by the enjoyment of the experience itself.

But this is more than merely a pastiche of western comedy. There pervades a distinctly European colour to everything from the culture and mannerisms of characters to the sensibilities of the dialogue. It's at once a surprise to anyone who knows Scandinavian literature primarily through the likes of Larsson and Mankell, and yet unquestionably true to its roots.

What this novel represents is a broadening of what we can come to expect of the regional literature and a maturation of the "scandi-crime" genre. It's easy to recommend as both an enjoying read and an intellectual curiosity.

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