at Temple Studios, Wednesday 24th July 2013
Before The Drowned Man, I had never seen a Punchdrunk show. I’d obviously read all about them and heard many amazing things about their work, which isn’t surprising seeing as they are a company which has been described variously as the Saviours of British Theatre, the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread and many other things besides. I was also supremely aware of the criticism they have had levelled at them too, especially the school of thought which finds problems in the fact that a supposedly ‘immersed’ audience finds no way of being able to access the narrative in any active way. Then, in the weeks leading up to seeing the show, I’d heard an extraordinary mix of views, from the ecstatic to the damning and everything in between. People gave me tips about following or exploring, about which floors to go to, about where to stand. None of which is really very useful when you’re shoved in a huge, unfamiliar and dark place and left to sort yourself out.
So rather than saying what you should or shouldn’t do during the show, or attempting to justify the brilliance of the piece as a whole, I’m going to talk about what I saw and why I loved it. Which is the whole point of Punchdrunk isn’t it?
Firstly, it’s important to point out that I spent the first 80-90 minutes not really liking the show (and perhaps not even wanting to like it, which is a dreadful sin, but considering everything I’d heard about the company and this show I think part of me wanted to prove myself to various people or something equally banal). I wandered around fairly aimlessly, getting annoyed at people getting in my way and not having the foggiest idea what was going on. After exiting the entrance lift at the first floor and perusing a few offices, I entered a large, chessboard-tiled room where eerie music played and spooky manikins sat. Finally, I found some action in the guise of a man and a woman dancing in a dressing room who then went into the chess room to dance around a table. Pretty but not in any way exciting.
During the next hour or so, I saw: a dance floor full of people where a man got stripped (Marshall) and a blonde-bobbed woman (Wendy) looked on in horror; the man from before (who I’d now worked out was the studio executive) making threats towards said woman; a woman performing some kind of voodoo in a shack in a desert; a singing, drug-taking transvestite; and someone making something in the woods. All well-crafted images created with feeling, but nothing remotely substantial or in dialogue with a larger conversation.
Then, in one moment, this changed, as a simple story played out between a man and a woman on a porch (William and Mary). They sit together, lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes before he spots a diamond bracelet on her wrist. A dance of passion follows, winding its way in and out of the porch’s frame and involving such raw emotion that you find yourself stood transfixed. After this ends and he runs off, she spots her lover by a clapped-out red 50s car around, on and inside which they move, creating a dance of pure lust. And then, as quickly as this had begun, her boyfriend returns and chases her violently around the vehicle, a mirror of the previous piece of choreography but this time charged with hate. It’s a gorgeous fifteen minutes, giving us a whole play’s worth of emotion, drama and intrigue and had me completely enthralled. I’d found Woyzeck.
Or so I thought.
Because soon after this, I encountered Wendy again, on set ready to film and completely unable to focus on their “ballet” scene due to her real-life and on-screen boyfriend Marshall having an affair on- and off-screen. Eventually, she leads him to the wilderness where she murders him with a pair of scissors before dropping his bloody body into the ground in a frenzy. Woyzeck Number 2 had committed her crime.
From here on in, The Drowned Man becomes a thrill-ride as (I think) the 90-minute loop is pretty much repeated so we catch glimpses of why events turn out this way and discover what comes next with William and Mary. Throughout, it becomes clear that the ‘inside-the-studio’ story of Marshall and Wendy mirrors the ‘outside-the-studio’ story of William and Mary; the realms of Hollywood are no greater than the rest of us, and the rest of us exist within Hollywood movies.
The piece is both a love song to and a brutal critique of the Golden Era of film-making. One scene, for example, sees the filming of a dance number, Maxine Doyle’s choreography taking inspiration from the likes of Grease to make a bebopping 50s routine, complete with hand jives and a towel gag. And this comes straight after a young couple fall in love during a steamy session in an American diner. What this does, then, is to demonstrate the seduction of Hollywood with all its bright lights and false emotion which nonetheless never fails to draw us in. During the final moments, as William throttles Mary in a desert, a soaring soundtrack makes it impossible to not feel something (Stephen Dobbie’s sound is relentless in its majesty).
And yet at the same time The Drowned Man frustratingly brings out the worst aspects of humanity, just like blockbuster movies. People try and jostle to get the best look at what’s going on, forgetting those behind them, and very few people seem to stay in one place or with one person for very long. Just as many of us only look at headlines when browsing the news, the majority of people in here will not stick around if they don’t understand what’s going on or don’t find it interesting. We don’t take time to commit to a narrative, instead flitting between plots and characters so that all that is ever visible are snapshots.
And, crucially, there are no cameras anywhere (at least as far as I could see – I may be wrong). Even when scenes are being filmed, there’s nothing except lights and a set, and the director is never present. These characters are trapped in a universe of their own making, perpetually making movies even though there is nothing there to record it. Similarly, each area is given a studio number, even if that setting is supposedly outside the studio walls and taking place ‘in reality’. Taking further inspiration from Buchner’s original, there is also a sideline narrative which explores the effects of medicine on the individual. On one wall, clipboards display the medication which everyone who works for the studio is taking, complete with prescriptions and dosages; every character is in a dream-like state induced by drugs, thus changing their behaviour and shifting their perception of the self. The Real is here impossible to find, as the distinction between fiction and non-fiction becomes blurred and everyone – including us – slips between the two without a thought.
This also means that we, the audience, take the place of the cameras. It is only us who can record events; there is no way of simulating what goes on here apart from playing it back in one’s memory. We shoot the film of this event, choosing the angles and their timing even though we have no say on what goes on in the script. At times, I found myself just standing in a corner and admiring the picture that had just been made in front of me (Beatrice Minns and Livi Vaughan’s exquisite design is worth the price of the ticket alone, and is supplemented by an ever-changing lighting design by Mike Gunning). Simultaneously, however, we become part of everyone else’s personal movie, turning into faceless beings gormlessly following others. At the same time as being auteurs behind the camera, then, we are reduced to unthinking extras.
The whole thing put me in mind of the speculation building up to Season 4 of Arrested Development (bear with me here). In the weeks preceeding the season’s premiere on Netflix, Mitch Hurwitz (the show’s creator), suggested that the show could be watched in any order, but had to backtrack very swiftly before it went live to tell fans it had to be viewed in order after all. In an interview afterwards, however, he said the following:
By the nature of the show, where the stories are happening simultaneously, there are moments where characters connect. If you and I each had episodes about us, this conversation right now would be in both of our episodes, except that you’d leave with me, and you’d take with me whatever transformative thing happened in this conversation, and then you’d leave with you in your episode. And it would be great if the audience had the ability to just jump over to your story in the middle of this conversation, and then follow you for the rest of the day.
This is pretty much what The Drowned Man is doing, and the only reason they did it before Hurwitz is because it’s easier to create in real-life than on screen. As audience members, we have no control whatsoever over what’s happening – and that’s fine, as we don’t do that in theatre anyway. What we do get to do is try and understand what makes characters tick, seeing where they’ve come from and where they’re going to and seeing sparks fly when two lone soles bumbling round the world are suddenly thrust into the same space.
And this is what director Felix Barratt does best in this show, demonstrating how the passing of time has an effect on relationships. (Seeing this on the same day as Circle Mirror Transformation made is impossible not to compare the two, and in seems to me they share a lot thematically regarding performance, time, love etc., except this is lot sexier and makes a far more intriguing social comment). We see how one ambiguous scene between two people or a bad day can lead to events escalating faster than anyone has the chance to realise. And though the piece is fragmented, lacks humour, is often vapid and frequently frustrating, for me it had an extraordinary charge driving through its characters which, once found, was little less than completely thrilling.