This show might not be for you. Not as in you might not enjoy it or you might not ‘get’ it (though you might very well not do either), but as in the show may reject you, or through an arbitrary set of decisions you may inadvertently reject the show. It’s not the kind of show that a theatre review can do justice to, if anything what it needs is closer to a restaurant review. Or a hotel review. Because here you’re picking your own journey from the menu Punchdrunk have provided, which annoyingly, they’re written in a language that’s as dense as it is indecipherable. Maybe I ordered a steak and you ended up with a panini. Maybe that’s true but it’s totally cool because you like paninis, for some reason. Maybe it was the other way around. I just don’t know.
The Drowned Man is Punchdrunk’s stock-in-trade writ very large indeed: a self-guided promenade around a vast and intricately detailed set haunted by dancers and performers who sketch the vaguest pretence of a story and treat the masked audience like spectres who’ve slipped a time-stream. It’s colossal, it’s eye-wateringly expensive, and it really doesn’t give a shit if you have a good time or not. You’re riding on the back of a mighty, mighty whale, and if you find enough to catch your attention in the labyrinth of flotsam that you’ve been tossed into, and if you didn’t catch a ride on Faust, The Masque of the Red Death or Sleep No More, it might just blow your mind.
[HERE BE SPOILERS]
You step into a goods lift inside a gutted Royal Mail sorting house, a guest of ‘Temple Studios’, a Lynchian nightmare of a film company from the days in which Hollywood’s golden age had long since dulled, which has invited this masked audience along to the evening of their wrap party. They need to shoot the last few scenes first, and so you’re separated from your friends and tossed into the endless corridors, back lots, prop-stores, film-sets and forests that make up Temple and its surrounding ‘badlands.’
Things may look a little sparse when you first enter. Having heard dark whisperings about the lack of performance and pizzazz in this production, I genuinely worried that Punchdrunk’s customary level of ‘WOW’ had been sold off to Stella Artois alongside their credibility (j/k…sort of), but fears are soon allayed as you enter meticulously arranged make-up rooms, offices with drooping fag ends and contracts, a string of motel rooms with rumpled bedding and dime store dressing gowns, a rodeo bar and a chrome plated diner.
Felix Barrett and his vast design team have excelled themselves in this, a show that offers a level of design audacity and complexity that throws even Masque into the shadows. Their mastery of such a range of scales is the production’s most powerful achievement – the experience of walking through a forest filled with caravans nudges up against that of walking into one of those caravans, opening a drawer, and spending ten minutes reading a desperate love letter by candlelight. If you find a script on a shelf, every page will be filled with detail, if you find a jewellery box it will almost certainly contain a treasure or a secret.
The first problem which emerges is the nature of the secret that jewellery box might contain. Or that a lonely radio plays out in the corner of the room. The story of The Drowned Man, for all of its pretension to mirror Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck or Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, is totally obscure. Relying far too heavily on vague archetypes and forgettable situations, from the seductive woman in red to the fading Hollywood starlet, you’d have to have a brain the size of a planet and an attention span even larger to follow or bother to follow the clichéd meanderings, and how much this bothers you is going to be a pretty decisive factor in how much you enjoy the experience as a whole.
The other factor may be your patience for co-director and choreographer Maxine Doyle’s approach to performance. She’s certainly got a style, and at times it can be an arresting one, but it hasn’t moved on an inch since Punchdrunk began, except perhaps in technical prowess. Everyone still looks like they’re having either angry break-up sex or actually being sexually assaulted, every emotion is either brooding jealousy or *really* brooding jealousy, and despite The Drowned Man featuring a higher density of performers than any Punchdrunk I can recall, they still largely play second fiddle to the set. Doyle’s theatrical language is terribly monochrome and shallow, and it’s only when the dance stops for a moment and a strain of naturalism or fragmented naturalism creeps in that the story as a whole begins to engage. A scene in which a mime is drowned in a Foley studio, another on the film-set itself and a third at a raucous birthday party each felt like a defibrillator to the temples.
But though there’s a serious lack of ‘proper’ theatre, there is another kind of theatre that lives through the arrangement of objects on a table or an accumulation of details that reflect on one another to create a slippery narrative drive. The only objects missing from this simulacrum studio are the cameras, conspicuous by their absence because we ourselves are expected to be those cameras, to be the directors of our own transitory film. We can be actors, too, either in the all too infrequent ‘one on one’ experiences, where a cast member takes us by the hand as if we’ve suddenly become solid to them and performs a tarot reading or requests a sponge bath, or in our own imaginations. When entering a phone booth and feeling a strange urge to close its shutter behind me, I’m suddenly struck by my presumption of a supposed agency, a role within the piece that’s more active than most immersive theatre can generate. For 30 seconds I thought I was a gumshoe. But then I spent the entire of Masque under the impression that I was a sort of Parisian Baker Street Irregular for C. Auguste Dupin, so I may just be particularly susceptible to self-initiated role-play.
You may not be.
In a way The Drowned Man resembles a computer game most of all, specifically a point and click adventure, where the reward for immersing yourself by picking up a diary or peering through a magnifying glass is only deeper immersion, and unless you’re willing to be drowned in the pools of bottomless detail you’ll find the experience as dry as dust.
This unpredictability could be a thrilling prospect, but Punchdrunk have dissolved any possibility of good-natured risk-taking through a few strokes of teeth-grinding arrogance and elitism. There are still no redesigned masks for our spectacled brethren, and though some have proven willing to jam theirs uncomfortably on top, others have not or have not been able, with Punchdrunk providing the maddeningly perfunctory advice that they ‘recommend contact lenses’.
Tickets start at crushingly expensive and build to just a bit bloody cheeky, with the outrageous addition of a ‘prologue and special scenes’ offered to those willing to splash out £85. It isn’t that the basic show’s less worthy of £45 than a mid-price West End musical, more that from a company which received a whopping £225,000 from the Art’s Council last year in a period of merciless cuts to arts as a whole, this kind of exclusivity is unwelcome. The idea of charging (so very much) more for the whole show or for the ‘extended version’ or however you wish to slice it is also a bullshit trick that needs shouting down loud and hard lest it sets a dangerous precedent to theatre companies capable of confusing an exciting treat for a shameless cash-grab. For the record, I wasn’t afforded the privilege of the prologue, and despite truly enjoying the overall experience, the standard three hours felt sufficient time to spend in Temple Studios.
It seems likely the backlash against one-time wunderkind Barrett and Doyle and their artistically compromised leviathan will continue with renewed vigour, but while it would be a pity if this was allowed to engulf the moments of wonder The Drowned Man can offer, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that this time they’ve kind of earned it.
The management of Temple Studios have requested me to note that, contrary to popular belief, tickets for The Drowned Man currently have good availability from August onwards.