Punchdrunk, one of the most talked about theatre companies around, is back with their latest production A Drowned Man. For those who don't know the drill with Punchdrunk, this is 'immersive theatre'. This means, rather than sit in a chair and watch a performance, the audience is involved within the performance itself.
To enable this, Punchdrunk has converted a four-storey Edwardian building in West London into their stage. The audience must don their walking shoes, pull down the provided face mask and immerse themselves into this world.
The world Punchdrunk has created - Temple Studios, Hollywood and the LA suburbs of the 1950s - is not a long, single set but a vast number of small sets weaved into each other - sand-dunes morph into churchyards, backstage dressing areas are followed by run-down motel bedrooms. And turn the next corner and you could be in anything from a diner to the boardroom of a picture studio; a clairvoyant's tent or a Catholic chapel.
Visually the production is a spectacular success. The tapestry of sets is wondrous and the diligence and attention to detail taken in bringing each to life is extraordinary. Punchdrunk's almost forensic preparation in the sets is the real strength of this production, leading it such an air of intensity and authenticity. There is great excitement to be had in investigating every nook and cranny of the wardrobe of a wannabe Hollywood starlet or the papers of a Hollywood studio.
Within these sets the actors come and go, performing small scenes, just slivers from the all-encompassing over-arching story. The scale of the story is huge - 34 actors and dancers are all completing their scenes simultaneously, overlapping, ongoing, across the sets in the building. Our job as the audience is to witness these pieces as we walk further and further into this world.
And as you investigate further, more of these little acts you see - a barroom brawl, a widow in mourning, a starlet desperately fighting to keep on top of the sliding sands... And when one little piece finishes, you can choose to keep walking or follow that character through their own path in the story.
So what is the story of A Drowned Man? What is this fable we are meant to learn? You know what, I'm not entirely sure. And that really is the crux of the issue I have with this production.
For the full three hours I involved myself in the production, I covered every inch of the building, followed characters and investigated as many of the stunning sets as I could. Yet though I witnessed so much of the production, I struggled to be emotionally involved in any of it.
It got to a point that as I was walking around Temple Studios, white mask on, inhaling the heat and intensity of the production, it suddenly occurred to me - I don't care about any of this. And I don't mean that in a Kevin-the-teenager kind of way but more, I wasn't emotionally caught up in the production at all.
Immersive theatre, or site-sympathetic theatre should you prefer that term, prides itself on each experience being unique to each audience member - you follow your own path and live through the piece of theatre in your own way. However theatre in which ever form must be an emotional experience. Immersive theatre must be more than just physical immersion.
Intellectually I was completely involved. How could I not be? The textures underfoot always changing - wood, sawdust, sand... The settings always evolving as I moved on - repository store rooms, secretarial offices, bedrooms and broken drown cars. Punchdrunk never stops. The metamorphosis of the set and the scenery around you is relentless and fascinating. But I felt I was in a museum.
I spent the full three hours within Temple Studios and so to come away largely unmoved is a real disappointment. I felt immersed in every way but the most crucial one of all.
Punchdrunk readily admit this is their biggest production to date and perhaps what they've gained in size, they've lost in emotional connection with the audience.
The set was too big to follow many, if any, of the vast number of characters through their own emotional arcs. You might witness parts of their trials but rarely all so it was impossible to build, let alone sustain, an emotional connection to any of them.
Indeed it wasn't until towards the end that most of us realised who the main character was and by then it was too late to have built an empathy or understanding with him so few of us cared about his demise.
Punchdrunk have many ardent followers and I have been a fan of their previous productions but, for me, this one didn't work on an emotional level. I would plunge myself into immersive theatre again as I find it challenging and interesting but next time I'd prefer an environment where it is clearer where the emotional heart of the story lies.
The Drowned Man is an easy piece of theatre to admire but a hard one to love.
National Theatre, London
To 30 December 2013