A single deckchair seems abandoned on a blustery rainy day in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast. Perhaps it has been abandoned by ambitious North Sea sunbather earlier that day. From the nearby watchtower, two figures emerge. One wears a large set of headphones and a transparent mac, which is being battered back and forth by the sea wind. Their companion guides them to the deck chair. It’s up to them whether they sit on the chair. It’s probably quite wet by now. They won’t be there long anyway. Someone’s coming to get them. Another companion, this time unseen. He knows that they are waiting for him.
The journey they will be taken on is The Borough, a Punchdrunk production commissioned specifically for this year’s festival. The Borough is also the name of the George Crabbe poem, which contains the story of Peter Grimes, on which Benjamin Britten based his opera of the same name. Britten having been one of the founders of the Aldeburgh Festival and his year being his centenary, the Festival commissioned three versions of the story of Grimes for this year. There have been concert performances of the opera at Snape Maltings Hall and an ambitious attempt to stage a full production of it on the beach. In fact, from that lonely deckchair, you can see the set off to your right.
Compared to the large-scale immersive worlds you might usually associate with the company, there is something immediately striking about the minimalism of this. One audience member at a time, an MP3, a deckchair. There are surprises in store of course but you aren’t plunged into the world straight away. I asked Punchdrunk Associate Director, Katy Balfour, if the company began with the space or with the source material. “It depends on the project” she explained. “With the larger scale pieces, the space would come first but The Borough came out of ongoing conversations with the Festival. Once they decided they wanted to do three versions of Peter Grimes then that was clearly what the source material was going to be. It’s also one of Felix [Barratt]’s favourite pieces of music so it made sense.”
My first experience of Punchdrunk was Faust in Wapping in 2006 and what I found so exciting about it was the way I could wander at my own pace, having a totally individual experience. At the time, I was very new to me at that time and felt liberating and transgressive. With The Borough though, it is essential that you remain in the synch with the MP3 you are listening so the pace has essentially been decided for you. I asked Katy about the implications of this shift in control.
“Once we decided it was going to be an audio piece of theatre, we realised that any tech that we relied on could potentially break. The more complicated the tech, the greater the chances of that happening. Obviously we wanted to avoid that and the chances of things breaking down are greatly reduced for an MP3 because it’s very straightforward technology. Once we had decided on that format, we knew it had to be to a set pace. So in that sense the decision was actually dictated by most reliable technology available. I do think there’s a pleasure in allowing yourself to get into the pace of it, be in synch with it. That pace, which is probably slower than your usual pace, at times anyway, allows people to experience the town of Aldeburgh more fully than they might otherwise. There’s something very powerful about walking around these streets listening to that music, the rhythm of it, because this is where it’s from, this is where it’s set. You can surrender to the music, like you might surrender to the sea.”
Another substantial departure from their normal modus operandi is the centrality of the text in The Borough. The experience lasts one hour and there is recorded narration throughout. The narrator’s voice is your guide through the town, this mystical version of Aldeburgh. Without the text, there would be no experience. The company brought in Jack Thorne to create that text, someone who knows a thing or two about atmospheres of suspense. I ask Katy if Jack was involved from the start of the process:
“No, the basic narrative arc had been fixed already, as had the locations. Jack was given a kind of essay plan, a framework to work within. Because the narrator is such an important figure in the experience, we needed the writer to create that identity. That’s very much Jack’s creation and I think that’s where his voice as a writer comes through. He would then write a draft and we would test that out, so there was a lot of back and forth between us and him.”
The gesture of Peter Grimes the opera, as a dramatic work, could be defined as the community turning against Grimes and that is the experience that Punchdrunk wanted the audience to undergo for themselves in The Borough, Katy tells me. What I found most unnerving was not knowing where the boundaries were between the world of the story and the real world. The cast is a combination of professionals and community performers. As it goes on, it becomes hard to differentiate which passers-by are in it and which aren’t. Often they won’t approach you unless you look at them or if you go off course. This induces a particularly paranoid state.
I wondered if I felt this more acutely as an outsider, a Londoner up for the weekend like many other festival goers. Was the experience a very different one for people who actually live here? Katy says that it might involve a slight shift of focus but the emotional states are similar:
“You’ve got to remember that about half the houses here are holiday homes, so the community that actually lives here all year round is very small. Much like in the Crabbe poem, they know all about each other and they know each others’ routines. You know where someone will be at a specific time of day. For them, it seems it’s less about the paranoia that comes from being an outsider and more about ending up at the sharp end of the town gossip.”
Even though the run of The Borough is over, I feel reluctant to reveal its final moment, in which you feel the full force of the community’s move against you. I think perhaps that it’s such an experiential moment that attempting to describe it won’t really do it justice. Instead, I’ll write about what happens right before. The narrator guides you to the edge of the town, to the marshes. Through the high reeds, you can see a path leading to an isolated hut. There is nothing else there. You can look towards the sea and just about make out the tops of boats, you can look towards the town and see the roofs of houses but if you look straight ahead as the narrative compels you to do there is nothing but you, the hut and the path. By this stage, you don’t need the narrator anymore and sure enough he soon tells you: “you’re on your own now”. The isolated cabin, the small community that keeps itself to itself, the cornfields (okay, they’re not cornfields but they don’t look all that different): all classic tropes of US horror movies.
“With this show, we knew that we wanted to build up to that moment. That was the image and everything before was going to be about how we got to that. Felix has this well of cinematic knowledge, cinematic references, and as a company I think that’s where our aesthetics come from. I think a lot of audiences have those references to draw on too though, that cinematic literacy. It allows us create worlds that aren’t everyday, that are more like dreams or shared nightmares.”
Unlike dreams though there is nothing subconscious or accidental about a Punchdrunk show. It is, in this sense, as Jonathan Franzen has described all fiction, “purposeful dreaming”. Katy tells me that there are people who have seen the company’s wildly successful New York production Sleep No More over fifty times. She believes they keep coming back because it’s one place where their search for meaning will constantly be rewarded, where nothing is accidental. Unlike the messy business of real life.
The Borough was at the Aldeburgh Festival from 7th – 23rd June 2013