Not Waving But Drowning

28 June 2013

Über-cool “immersive theatre” company Punchdrunk return to London with The Drowned Man, channeling 1950s Hollywood with David Lynch-inspired surrealism. It’s an impressive spectacle – but is it theatre?

It’s been five years since I saw The Masque of the Red Death, Punchdrunk‘s interactive theatre show based on the Gothic horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, set in the Victorian Gothic magnificence of the Battersea Arts Centre. Since then, the company have staged a couple of other shows in London, Tunnel 228 and The Duchess of Malfi, (neither of which I saw), and their Stateside production Sleep No More, inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, has been running for a staggering two years in New York – a success almost unheard of for an obscure off-Broadway show from the UK. As far as cool edgy Time Out-approved theatre companies go, Punchdrunk are definitely a hot ticket. Each new show invariably creates a scramble for tickets, with runs sold out months in advance.

Part of Punchdrunk’s appeal comes from their shrewd marketing strategy, which works on the Sadeian assumption that a little withholding of pleasure and the occasional crack of the whip gets audiences begging for more. Details of new shows are kept largely under wraps, with only minimal information about themes released ahead of time. Even the “promotional trailer” for their new show is a misnomer – a deliberately vague experimental short film that reveals nothing about the production and instead aims to disorientate the viewer. Venues are kept a secret for as long as possible before opening night, and there’s an elaborate ritual for entering the sets, all carefully designed to rachet up the audience’s anticipation and to draw them out of their comfort zone and into an unknown place. And, as Punchdrunk tickets are now harder to source than Willy Wonka’s golden tickets, there’s a certain cultural caché in being able to claim that you were one of the Elect who made it past the guarded gates and into the Pleasuredome.

Once inside, audience members are offered a curious mix of restraint – you’re required to wear a Venetian-style commedia dell’arte mask, and are prevented from speaking – and freedom, as you’re left to explore the set without guidance. After a creepy elevator ride, you’re spat out onto one of a series of floors, where you work your way through a maze of fetishistically decorated rooms and dimly lit corridors. Poking around and opening drawers and doors is encouraged, though not all of them will open to you, with grim black-masked attendants barring the way through certain doors at different points in the evening. A weird vaguely dissonant soundtrack plays throughout the venue, often changing in specific rooms, further creating a sense of unease and horror movie suspense. As you wander about in the labyrinthine gloom, sweaty whippet-hipped actors and dancers will waft past, throwing themselves and each other balletically around the set, playing out fractured strands of narratives, and occasionally interacting with passersby. While story strands are repeated throughout the evening, there’s no apparent structure or pattern. The masked audience is to navigate their way in the dark and assemble meaning as best they can, or simply cruise around and enjoy the spectacle.

Punchdrunk’s latest show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is their largest and most ambitious yet: a reimagining of 1950s Hollywood, interwoven with scenes from Woyzeck, an unfinished play by 19th German playwright Georg Büchner. Woyzeck is an historical curiosity – a play written in fragments telling the story of an impoverished soldier who submits himself to experiments performed by a sadistic doctor. After being told to live on a -near-starvation diet (the doctor instructs that he live on peas), Woyzeck experiences hallucinations and ends up murdering his adulterous wife. Punchdrunk cult leader Felix Barrett has cited Woyzeck as the foundational text for Punchdrunk’s approach to theatre, and it’s easy to trace the dramaturgical influences. Like Woyzeck, Punchdrunk shows opt for splintered and incomplete narratives, and share Büchner’s obsessions with disturbed psychological states, the eroticisation of sexual violence against women, and mistrust of traditional authority figures.

As one of the fortunate few who managed to score tickets, I went to The Drowned Man last night, in the company of the Converse-wearing Shoreditch hipsters who appear to be Punchdrunk’s core audience. While I was dazzled, yet again, by the epic scale of Punchdrunk’s vision, and the fetishistic detail with which they dress and light their cavernous sets, I was left with the same reservations that I had after seeing Masque, and a few more that are specific to this production. While The Drowned Man showed an epic scope (no doubt assisted by the resources of the government-subsidised National Theatre as co-producer), and some strikingly beautiful set design, there was very little that was new or surprising about the performance itself. For a company that prides itself for its theatrical innovation, it felt very much like a rehash of the Punchdrunk house style, transplanted to a bigger venue and with a modish new song to sing.

Punchdrunk’s greatest strengths are their location and transformation of otherwise uninspiring “found spaces”. The Drowned Man is staged in an old post office building next to Paddington Station, and their transformation of the site is staggering. Set in an imaginary London movie studio in which a film of Woyzeck is supposedly being made, The Drowned Man is really a homage to a glossy, nightmarish version of 1950s Americana, with heavy nods to the films of David Lynch and “rotten Hollywood” films like Chinatown and The Day of the Locust.

There are some beautifully realised set pieces: 1950s diners straight out of Happy Days, cowboy bars with bearded drag queen performers, palatially decorated producers’ offices, sound recording booths, costume wardrobes that feel like they go on forever, and a cinema claiming to be playing Eyes Without a Face where you can look through a gauze screen at people moving around in the adjoining room, oblivious to your presence. In the lower levels, the mood gets even darker: an enormous forest with real, sap-dripping pine trees, in which the climactic scene of Woyzeck is played out; shabby hotel rooms tenanted by perky young starlets; and a destitute looking trailer park filled with boozed-up vagrants and ravaged actors fallen on harder times.

When viewed for the first time, each room is a marvellous discovery. I gasped in surprise and wonder at the extraordinary upper floor – an eerie post-apocalyptic desert, with floors covered in sand, the broken neon signs of long-forgotten roadside hotels peeking through sand dunes, and the genuinely terrifying tableau of ten straw men sitting lifelessly in front of a coffin at a Mexican funeral. And the red room in the basement, lifted straight from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, provided the evening’s headiest sense of pleasure, with a glimpse of humour almost entirely absent from the rest of the production, almost making up for its lack of originality. Every Lynch fan secretly dreams of being able to star in their own soundtracked landscape, and Punchdrunk certainly seemed happy to pay homage to the Master of Weird and just this once, give fans what they wanted.

The major weakness of The Drowned Man is the performances. While beautifully choreographed and performed, they fail to provide a compelling narrative to match the impressive sets. As is often the case with this kind of dance theatre, there’s a pervading sense of prettified anguish and a lot of playing to the gallery. The dancers are young, beautiful and frequently undressed, and the choreography is athletic, aggressive and highly sexualised. The women, dressed in ripped 1950s dresses, have smeared lipstick, free-flowing unkempt hair and a continual look of post-coital tristesse, and usually end up being made love to violently by moustachioed men before they’re thrown around and discarded. The men are generally more smartly attired, becoming sweatier, manic and more naked as the hours drag on. There’s a lot of maniacal laughing, and lashings of homosexuality, transvestism and various forms of sexual transgression. On and on it goes, through room after room, till it all starts to look, deadeningly, exactly the same.

The dancers’ work is impassioned and striking – sometime quite literally, if you happen to get in their way and get the tail end of a back-handed slap – but without a coherent narrative, it becomes nothing more than a series of beautifully struck poses. This was less of a problem for Masque of the Red Death, in which Poe’s horror stories provided a narrative spine and a sense of atmospheric cohesion. While there is the odd Woyzeck reference here and there in The Drowned Man – a creepy doctor who examines semi-nude patients, a storeroom with cans of peas, a stabbing in the forest, though with gender roles reversed – The Drowned Man has few recognisable reference points, and seems to be its own strange creature, beautiful and menacing in its refusal to give up its own secrets.

This approach is admirable in a way – Punchdrunk are clearly confident enough in their work to be able to dispense with traditional narrative – but also deeply frustrating. Too often it felt that the dancers were stretched too thin, and that there was simply too much space and too few of them to be able to make an impact. Worse still, there’s an underlying pretentiousness and a sense of reaching for a gradiosity and profundity that didn’t feel fully deserved.

Despite these flaws, that to me seem big enough to drive a Mac Truck through, audiences lap up Punchdrunk’s chic nihilism and hands-on, tits-out theatricality. Partially this is due to Punchdrunk working harder and longer than most interactive theatre companies to create impressive visual spaces. There’s a contemporary attraction to Punchdrunk’s work that seems to be stronger than mere aesthetics: the desire of modern audiences to become fully immersed in a drama to the point where they become participants, not just passive onlookers. A friend of mine who’s a schoolteacher talked to me recently about how he’s designing an internet-based teaching system so that his students can experience learning in a similar way to how they experience their own, technology-filled lives. Punchdrunk are arguably doing the same thing: presenting theatre that speaks to a generation schooled on social media to imagine themselves as the stars of their own narrative, but also providing audiences with an immediate, visceral, real-time experience that isn’t mediated via a computer or a smartphone.

Barrett has spoken extensively about how Punchdrunk’s insistence on interactive theatre is an important form of cultural re-education for a passive and unengaged theatre scene. He certainly has a point – moving through a theatrical space with dancers swirling and stabbing each other around you is a more exciting way to kill three hours than sitting in an uncomfortable seat in a West End theatre, and there’s the added bonus of built-in exercise. (My personal trainer was delighted when I told him I’d spent my Friday night running around a warehouse and bolting up and down flights of stairs). As a promenader, you have to take more responsibility for your own role as an intruder and a voyeur. And there’s the intriguing prospect of knowing that your experience of the show may be totally different from other audience members, leading to some fascinating, exasperating post-show conversations.

“Did you see the naked guy rolling around in sand?”, I heard one woman ask her friend as they filed out of the building. “No, but I did see the sound engineer pushing the mime artist’s head underwater”, came the reply. I was amused by this, but also irritated. Through the simple fact of not being in the right place at the right time, I’d missed out on the spectacle of male nudity and one of the show’s “money shot” images of the drowned man. Though I knew I was being irrational to think so, I felt shortchanged – I’d gotten less Punchdrunk for my buck than I felt I deserved. After a while, it’s hard not to feel suspicious about the illusion of “freedom” and “interactivity” that Punchdrunk claim to provide. Since we only see what the cast and crew allow us to see, and critical information about plot and motivation is withheld, the experience feels less like liberation from armchair theatre tradition and more like a training module for living in a totalitarian regime. For a form of theatre that prides itself on “empowering” the audience, Punchdrunk’s style really reduces us to the status of lab rats, scuttling around in our cages and looking for the exit.

For a Generation X audience used to video games, Big Brother, corporate paintballing tournaments, 3D movies, YouTube and group therapy, Punchdrunk’s interactive style may be as natural as posting a status update on Facebook. But I’m still unconvinced that this produces a more satisfying theatrical experience than sitting in a theatre with a proscenium arch watching some nice Chekhov. Though audiences are rounded up at the end of each Punchdrunk show for an en masse dramatic finale, there’s little sense of the communal satisfaction or catharsis experienced in traditional theatre. Fellow audience members, rather than being something you share an experience with, become unwelcome distractions or even competitors for space, like in rush hour on the Tube, turning the piece into a terrifying Darwinian struggle.

Since there’s so little narrative meat on the bone, you’re left with little more than a generic sense of mood and atmosphere, which fades soon after you’ve left the building. Though my senses were aroused, and some images still stick in the mind, there’s little more of lasting significance. Critically, there was very little for my mind or my emotions to connect to, other than the fear or surprise experienced by visiting a live-action Chamber of Horrors, and certainly nothing that challenged my understanding of myself or the world I live in.

Above all, Punchdrunk feels like a missed opportunity. By requiring its audience to don masks and participate in the action, we’re reminded of our roles as voyeurs – but where does that take us? By focusing so relentlessly on sex, violence and murder, Punchdrunk are doing nothing more than providing a high-class peep show, with a couple of lashes of the whip now and then to remind audiences to feel sufficiently guilty about their pleasure. This has the effect of reducing the audience to (as New York Times critic Ben Brantley describes in his review of Sleep No More), a group of “clumsy, anonymous lugs in white face masks who keep elbowing one another out of the way to get a better view of the sex and violence”. This strikes me as a rather cynical, punitive way to engage with your audience, even if that wasn’t what was initially intended.

Despite my reservations, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Punchdrunk’s work to anyone, particularly those interested in set design, for whom Punchdrunk set a very high bar of achievement to follow. I’m just not sure that there’s enough for the repeat visitor to justify a second or subsequent visit. Like the beautiful fur-coated actress pacing restlessly in her dressing room in one of the extended ground floor sequences, The Drowned Man is all dressed up with no place to go.


  1. The Shunt company, in existence since 1998, was one of the first of the recent wave. “All it really amounts to is theatre of infantile shock and sensation,” said one critic of their 2004 show Tropicana, though for the crowds that flocked to their weird cabarets under London Bridge, infantile shock and sensation were precisely what they were after.

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