Saturday, 7 September 2013
The Drowned Man - Punchdrunk
A few of us visited the National Theatre/Punchdrunk's excellent 'The Drowned Man' in the mysterious dilapidated building by Paddington Station. I've blogged about it previously, and the first time I saw it was part of the early previews.
My gang of accomplices were also seasoned Punchdrunkers, so when we arrived at the allotted nine pm start time, we were the first through the doors into the black labyrinth which precedes the first view of the film studio.
Suitably masked we were bundled into a creaky 'Tower of Terror' style lift and dispatched onto different floors of the building. The pictures here are Punchdrunk PR shots, I wouldn't take photos in a theatre performance. Rest assured though, that it is possible to get very close to the action and to explore the whole environment.
I noticed that the whole start-up process has been slickened since I last attended and I had a similar feeling about the event as a whole.
I'd also had time to process my prior experiences including that the original Georg Büchner play Woyzeck (on which this is partly based) had been discovered as fragments and then assembled. It seems to fit with this production, which can be likened to the clips of a film, being discovered in a random sequence. There's also a kind of negative and positive reconstruction of the same story, which isn't explained and takes a little while to fall into place.
This time, I arrived in the middle of a set of caravans, in darkened zone close to a mysterious chapel, which was gently leaking a liquid. The moisture heightened a damp underfoot aroma as I made my way through hanging laundry and towards a small woodland. Our group was already dispersed by this time, and I truthfully didn't see two of them again at all until around midnight after the performance.
I decided to get myself further lost and moved away from this initial environment, to a vast desert where two men sat alone playing a slow motion game to win drinks from a bottle of tequila.
There was an advantage to being early to the party, to see a few scenes before the inevitable crowds of spectral viewers arrived.
The play features a madness, and actors sometimes psychotically see the masked people watching them. At other times they look straight past, even in moments of intense close encounter.
For me, this version was very different from previously. I'd arrived at a different point, knew some of the scenes, but was also surprised at how much more there was to see. There were a couple of whole places that I remembered but didn't find again at all on this visit.
Imagine a complex of American movie sets, plus some of the surrounding environment. During the preview it was positioned that the scenes were in the London outpost of the Hollywood studio.
This time it was firmly American. Some of the detailing had been changed, but there was still a brooding ambient soundtrack which sometimes swelled to a full-on movie climax. It was difficult to not be affected by this and at one point I followed sounds which seemed to have been deliberately reversed to further disorientate.
There's a darkness to the storylines too. Movies, power, sex, voodoo, quasi-religion, symbolism, experiments, menace. And if you try to follow the light it can still lead you away from the path.
This time I spent more time discovering further secrets and the hidden passageways that link things together. There's a delight in delving into a changing room wardrobe, wondering what's there and discovering a disturbingly long and winding path through hanging black curtains to another entirely different environment. Or hanging around in a deserted cinema to see if a movie will play - or just as importantly, what is the other side of the screen.
It was a good hour and a half before I found the bar, which is the only place in the whole building where masks can be removed. It was lively and full, with a torch singer and a very cool bluesy/jazzy band playing. A place to hang out in its own right, except there was still more to see and experience.
I'd taken my own route through most of the show, but there were others who would follow a character along and I noticed at various points when a character arrived at the bar another 20 or more people would follow.
It's still a mystery to me how there can be 600 visitors to this performance yet I could be in whole areas alone. As an example I arrived in a vast chequered floored area alone, saw a central column with a postcard, noticed two people lying prone on the floor and then spied a man watching from behind a column. I won't say more, but it takes a moment and some caution to approach the couple.
I realise I'm not really dealing with the story or the narrative here. If I did it could be a spoiler, but in any case I think a large proportion is the immersive experience.
At it's simplest it could be called promenade theatre; I'll suggest it's so much more.