Features Published 19 July 2013

The Drowned Man: Playing the Game

A conversation about Punchdrunk, gaming and spectatorship.

Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney: There were several moments during The Drowned Man where I felt as if I was in my own private movie. The soundtrack helped I think, – the Shangri-Las’ ‘Walking in the Sand’ plays in my head often enough anyway – those finger clicks kicking in as I opened a door. The lighting, crepuscular, twilit, also played a part as I picked my way through an indoor glade, the ground underfoot loamy, or found myself in a diner, all Formica and bourbon and bubble gum, James Ellroy, Carson McCullers and Edward Hopper. I loved that. I could have played there all day.

Compared to their last major London show – The Masque of the Red Death at BAC, which is the only other Punchdrunk piece I’ve experienced (I missed Faust, sadly) – I got a lot out of The Drowned Man. I saw more action, so to speak, followed a couple of characters around (though didn’t find their arcs compelling enough to stick with them for too long), had my hand-held and my face stroked by a sequin-bedecked woman in a Red Room. Beautiful as the design was, I found Masque a hugely frustrating experience. I spent so much of my time in there, standing in glorious but empty spaces, arriving at scenes just as they’d finished and the one time I was in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time I clearly stood in the ‘wrong’ place and got (quite roughly) elbowed out of the way by one of the performers. This didn’t really endear me towards them as a company.

So despite the oven-like temperatures, I enjoyed a lot about the experience. Some of the design was truly spectacular – I particularly liked the shrines and the scarecrows – the level of detail was delicious and for the first time I can grasp why people might become frequent fliers, returning multiple times. I think it was Ian Shuttleworth who said, when discussing Masque, that in order to get the most out of it you have to be good at following cues, chasing voices. I struggled with that in Masque, but I guess here I played the game better. It’s just a shame it took one deeply frustrating experience for me to figure out how to do that. Had I paid the best part of £50 in order to learn those lessons, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel quite so warmly towards it.

Stewart Pringle: Though I have some severe reservations on it as a piece of theatre, I had a pretty awesome time wandering around Temple Studios. I found the attention to detail just as arresting as I had in Masque, and the scale and scope even more breathtaking. I’ve read a few of the early blog reviews and I find it genuinely surprised that experiences like walking through a forest filled with camper-vans, sifting through the detritus of failed relationships in seedy hotel rooms and wandering through the back-lot Beamish of the street scene have been written off as if the show was just a few hours plodding around a dingy warehouse.

I saw far more action and far more actors than I did in Masque, but in a way I think that took me out of the experience rather than enhanced my immersion. Because the actors interact with the audience so rarely, and because I find the dancey stylings of Maxine Doyle so insufficient and unengaging, I had far more fun when I was exploring on my own. There was a bunch of letters in the sort of broken down house area that I read through in their entirety, tracing a relationship from first wobble to total collapse, and I found the experience far more moving than any amount of repetitive interpretive dance.

I’m with Tash on the soundtrack, too. In the main I found it really enhanced the atmosphere, even if its repetitions eventually began to blur everything into a single tone. Because it essentially cycled around, or seemed to, it added to the creeping sense of dramatic stasis that built towards the final hour. Its lack of syncronicity with the action of individual scenes also created the occasional daft moment, such as finding I myself watching a man putting his trousers on in the back-room of a seamstresses to soaring, cinematic strings. They were very nice trousers, I suppose.

The Drowned Woman. Photo: Pari

The Drowned Woman. Photo: Pari

William Drew: So I find the idea of “playing the game” of a Punchdrunk show really interesting. My interpretation of this, which may not be what you meant, Tasha, is how an audience member makes sense of all the stimuli they fill their shows with, so they weave together a narrative for themselves. Bearing in mind, the world does not react to you, in the sense of your actions affecting outcomes, I can see two ways you can do this. The first is to explore the environment, looking for letters, imagining what was there before, finding the space in the absences for your own imagination; the other is to look for performers, to watch them and to follow them through a space. Let’s call the first exploration and the second active spectatorship (while recognising the extent to which it is “active” might be problematic but that’ll do for now). From what I understand, Stewart preferred the exploration so actually found the number of opportunities for active spectatorship unhelpful, at best, and an irritant, at worst. Tasha, on the other hand, you seem to have attempting to engage with both Masque and Drowned Man as an active spectator and this is something that you feel you “failed” at with Masque but did more successfully in Drowned Man.

It seemed to me that Drowned Man was heavily weighted towards active spectatorship. Perhaps there were more actors or maybe it was simply the case that people know to “play the game” of a Punchdrunk show better by now so you get what amounts to a fairly respectable fringe audience in dogged pursuit of almost every performer. Like Stewart, my favourite moments were the ones where I could be alone exploring the world that the company have created. There were still treasures to be found in doing that. My favourite moment of the Drowned Man was where I sat on the one free chair in an audience of scarecrows. The impression that I was on a film set meant that I was able to suspend my disbelief for long enough to feel as if the “man” in front of me might turn around any second. That was thrilling. Generally though, I didn’t find there were as many pay-offs from exploring as there were in Faust and this leads me back to the possibility that the weighting is built into this show by the company in response to how most audiences want to behave within the environment. They are “failing” fewer people who want to play in that way by making it easier to “play the game” successfully but, in doing so, are they losing a little of the openness that was part of the appeal of their earlier work?

Natasha Tripney: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. Looking back on it now, my favourite moments of Drowned Man were actually ones of exploration – finding intricate origami flowers in a series of filing drawer or discovering a hidden shrine made of delicate curls of cassette tape. Even my lovely Shangri-Las moment was one in which I was alone in a space. I found Doyle’s choreographic style – all that sweaty sexual intensity – very samey after a while and not particular engaging and, as you said, Stew, far too reliant on archetype. I felt no need to pursue any one performer for long, though I gather this is an approach which lots of people favour. I think what worked for me here was the ratio between the exploratory/active elements and maybe the fact that I didn’t put pressure on myself to chase the action or attempt to piece a plot together as I did in Masque and therefore was far better able to enjoy what I was experiencing rather than fret about what I wasn’t. I think that’s what I meant by playing the game.

Motorshow. Photo: Pari

Motorshow. Photo: Pari

Lauren Mooney: This was my first Punchdrunk, Tasha, and I found all the things you said about the unsatisfactory nature of your Masque experience really familiar. Basically, it does seem like there are two ways to approach a show like this – following the actors or exploring the world. Not having done anything like this before, I found myself a little paralysed by indecision, and so didn’t have a fully satisfactory experience of either.

As I think most of us have said, I was completely blown away by the level of detail and the sheer SIZE of the thing; I’d spoken to a couple of people about what to expect, but nothing, really, could have prepared me for it. There was a kind of dream logic to the whole place that I found genuinely disturbing – I can’t put my finger on it, it was just an atmosphere, something perhaps to do with not being able to hear the actors when they spoke and being able to, to some extent, do what you wanted (go through people’s papers, letters, diaries) in a way that would be impossible or sociopathic in real life.

That and the music creeped me out all the way from the top of my spine to the bottom, and made my wandering experiences less adventurous than they should have been. When I was alone in the basement and found a cell full of small blocks, I had a powerful sense that the door was going to shut behind me, and wanted to be back in the safety of a crowd; when I was in a crowd, I wanted to be back on my own again, experiencing that waking-dream sensation.

My instinct to follow the actors and scenes was almost entirely, I think, for me, the wrong one – but it took me a long time to realise that most of the scenes were similar, repetitive, plot-light… Too long really, as by the time I’d given up on them and dug into some proper exploring, it was time for the finale. I basically expected there to be more plot than there was? So I was constantly chasing other scenes, thinking I was missing something, that some important brilliant theatre was happening in another room just outside my reach – when of course it wasn’t.

This is why I agree with Stew’s comment that it isn’t maybe good theatre so much as an amazing experience. The things I liked about it, and I liked lots in spite of a few reservations, weren’t things I can recognise as being connected in any way to theatre, the way a beautiful script or a brilliant performance can move you – it was a different sensation being evoked completely differently. It was the mood in the place that I found most effective, partly thanks to the music and partly, I must say, the masks. I know they’re controversial and uncomfortable, and I wear glasses so I had them squished onto my face a bit, but bloody hell, for me they were so effective. It made the audience look like part of the set design, for one thing, when seeing someone pulling a face at an inopportune moment might really take you out of it. (I have a lot of thoughts on this but actually, as I’m the only person new to Punchdrunk, I imagine everyone else is so Over the masks…)

So having said all this, I completely buy into the idea of revisits – I enjoyed my experience but it was quite unsatisfactory, and only gets more so the more I talk to other people – which brings me to pricing, something Stew talks about in more depth in his review. Isn’t there a way they could, for instance, charge far less for a return visit? If I’d paid £40 for that I would’ve been so cross, because I felt like I did it all wrong; I think the ticket costs are extortionate in general but doubly so because, as has been said, a single visit can be so frustrating. If they MUST charge such a lot, can’t they at least have an option of, you know, paying £10, £15 for a return visit…? I don’t know.

Having said all that, a friend of mine who also went to The Drowned Man is a gamer and his experience of things was very different to mine…

William Drew: There are some connections with videogames, yes, but there are also very significant differences in that the piece is no way interactive. It is a cliché of lazy videogame narratives to use letters lying around to fill in backstory for those of us for whom that matters. Going back to my previous categorisations of the way to experience a Punchdrunk show, I am drawing partly on Bartle’s gamer psychology. One of the categories of gamer types is the Explorer. These kinds of things are littered throughout videogame worlds to appeal to Explorer types. Other types, such as the Killer, will ignore them because they, you know, want to kill people (frowned upon in a Punchdrunk show, I understand, almost as much as talking).

Similarly, you might see a couple of NPCs (Non-Player Characters) arguing about something in a videogame. That argument is likely to be significant, possibly not to the main narrative, but could generate a quest you might want to embark on or the information contained within it might be relevant to another quest. I’m talking principally about the RPG genre because they tend to be more open world. In an adventure game, things are more linear and that makes it easy for everything to be relevant. What the environment tends to provide in both of these genres of games though is exposition and this is essentially all that Punchdrunk are giving us here. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism but I think it’s important to point out the ways in which The Drowned Man is as unlike a game as it is a piece of traditional theatre. I think a serious gamer who went there expecting a game would be as disappointed/confused as a hardcore theatregoer who went expecting some theatre.

Lauren Mooney: William – I very much agree, though the thing I meant about the difference in our experiences was actually less of a comment on the action than on our reactions to it. Oddly, I bought into the reality of the world almost too much – I rarely read the letters or looked through the drawers, so convinced was I in the bloody silly fibre of my being that this was wrong – or if not wrong, certainly something I risked being caught in the middle of and shouted at for!

Whereas my friend, Liam, who creates and designs games, had no such qualms and riffled away to his heart’s content. He even told me he regretted not trying on the clothes in the costume rooms – trying them on, which would NEVER have occurred to me in a MILLION YEARS.

I do think being predisposed to it by gaming might make you better at ‘playing’ a Punchdrunk show, but no, it certainly is nothing like actual gaming. Several people I’ve spoken to, in fact, said they would have liked to be given some kind of task, a thing to achieve or attain – whereas the show as it stands is essentially the opposite of this, telling people to ‘just go and mill about’. Visitors risk being paralysed by choice and ending up like me, waddling about lost and peering in through windows, looking for the party…

I think you’re right when you say that as either a gaming or a purely theatrical experience, The Drowned Man absolutely disappoints. Though I was hugely excited about the whole thing for a few hours after I left, just because it was so mad and huge and beautiful to look at, that sensation seems to fade hugely the further I get from it. It really does seem to me that most of the things I enjoyed most were general Punchdrunk things, not specific to this show, that I loved because they were new to me – and so ultimately, it does kind of seem like Punchdrunk have a set bag of tricks they wheel out every time, that only really impress the first time you see them. Apart from this, the quality of your experience is characterised by how well you play the game and…luck.

Read Stewart Pringle’s review of The Drowned Man.

Read William Drew’s review of Punchdrunk’s The Borough.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.



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