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.

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