I’m a massive fan of alternative theatre, and much prefer a fringe performance to a mainstream musical. So when a friend of mine had a spare ticket to see the hugely hyped and highly rated The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable by Punch Drunk in association with The National Theatre, I jumped at the chance!
The Drowned Man tells of two love stories; one set inside the gates of a film studio, and one outside it, which mirror each other and show a spurned lover becoming increasingly paranoid and unhinged until they murder their cheating partner. William was deserted by Mary, and Wendy was destroyed by Marshall. Slightly confused? Me too! And having heard many stories about what would happen during this theatrical journey I began to feel slightly nervous and unsure what to expect as I approached the huge warehouse next to Paddington Station where The Drowned Man was staged. But I was sure it would all come clear once inside…
Maybe not. The thing is – there isn’t actually much acting in this “play” – it’s much more of a “performance / experience” than an actual show with a beginning, middle and end. Which is fine. As long as it works. And I’m still not convinced that in this case it did. I had to constantly squint at my synopsis in the darkness to try and piece together what I was watching – who was who, and what was happening – but in reality, there wasn’t actually much happening! Whilst I enjoyed the uniqueness of Punch Drunk, the most potent emotions I can muster about it was weariness and grumpiness! Oh dear! The concept is incredible, but I’m not sure it actually translates very well.
Before we entered the space, we were handed plastic masks which were pretty terrifying to look at – beige in colour, with intense razor edged cheekbones and strange duck shaped beaks. Each audience member wears the mask, to distinguish who is an actor (without masks) and who is a spectator like you. The masks also served to add to quite a tense and unsettling atmosphere which you would expect from a murder story. Several times I was nearly scared half to death as a hollow duck billed face loomed out the darkness towards me! It also made me feel really uneasy when seeing a herd of masked individuals following actors around, as I find mob mentality a bit chilling. All of which does well to add to the sense of mystery and paranoia the two spurned lovers experience.
You are then sent into a vast warehouse and encouraged to explore and travel on a personal journey throughout the story and through a series of the most amazingly intricate “sets” I’ve ever experienced. Each floor of the warehouse is a different setting – including the streets outside the film studio (with motel rooms, shops, and cinema), inside the film studio lots (with fully made up stages, board rooms, make up and costume rooms) a saloon style bar, a forest and a desert. WHAT?! It’s seriously brilliant! And these are all open for you to roam around and poke about in! You are encouraged to open doors, rifle through drawers, read all the detailed paper work lying around and basically do what you want! It really is remarkable the detail it goes into, the sheer size of the theatrical world you’re in and the novelty that you can explore it all and reach out and touch the theatre you are a part of. This was my favourite part about The Drowned Man, particularly in the first half hour when it really was extremely novel.
This novelty soon wore off though and I became tired of wandering around and longed for some more action. I paid money to come see some acting, not just entertain myself! Entry times were staggered – us going in at 5:30- so I think we had about half an hour to wait for the entire audience to be let in, and by this time I had had a good look around the first level of sets. Eventually actors were “released” into the sets and we started to notice audience members following them around, so decided to do the same, and were led to different rooms and even different floors as the characters moved around. Again this quickly became tiresome and it was a bit confusing as to which actor you should follow (as they were all over the place) and working out who they were and what they were doing. And when with one actor, you obviously missed out on another chunk of action from another. As the hours wore on, I certainly did get very tired of having to run around trying to find actors and actually see some performing (there were large periods of times when you could just be wandering about trying to find something going on). Often when you did find something, the crowd of masked audience members was so large you couldn’t actually see anything. One piece of acting took place in a very small tent in the desert, so obviously only the 10 or so audience members at the very opening could see inside to what was going on. The rest of us were left bobbing up and down trying to get a glimpse of the action, or else loitering outside boredly waiting for them to move on somewhere else.
I can’t say I was overly impressed with the acting once I saw some either. There was a lot of interpretive writhing around on the floor in silence, which was impressive the first time, but soon got tired and repetitive. One scene of two men cleaning the board room in the studios was well done, with them jumping over one another, almost stage fighting / dancing off each other, but even this then went on for five minutes too long. I was left with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for any of the performances I saw.
We were in the warehouse for 3 ½ hours in the end, with the finale culminating in a huge group dance scene with the whole audience ushered down to the basement together. Whilst this was quite impressive, by this stage I was so tired of being herded around, and was too busy trying not fall over as I was forced to kneel awkwardly on the bark strewn floor, I couldn’t care less what was happening in front of me. Had I had some of this level of performance 3 hours ago, I might have been more interested.