Take a mask and leave your inhibitions behind. Say goodbye to your friends and take the hand of curiosity. Expect nothing and look for everything. This is The Drowned Man by Punch Drunk.
Last night, I spent 3hours in what felt like a 4- tier Mike Nelson installation. From the moment the 'play' had begun I was stuck between feeling like I was caught in an interactive video game or trapped in the body of an obsessively voyeuristic fly.
The Drowned Man is based on Georg Büchner's Woyzeck and I think Punch Drunk have the same amount of knowledge of the play as I have maintained since I studied it at A-Level. Very little.
The play unfolds in 200,000 square feet of a post-office building beside the Paddington train station. The audience is instructed to don Venetian-style masks for the whole show and must chase characters through labyrinthine spaces, between worlds within worlds. It's a little The Shawshank Redemption meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Punch Drunk have chosen to adapt the play to take place in a 1960 film studio. Why? I am still not sure. I have seen a performance of Macbeth performed by inch-high plastic ninjas that had more relevance and confused me less. I saw the odd reference to Woyzeck's play; peas, a doctor's control over their patient, jealousy, a murder but that is really it. The intentionally sparse dialogue which was a bizarre mix of American-English didn't help matters- if they were talking, guaranteed I was too absorbed by what I was seeing to strain my ears over the encompassing musical score.
With approximately 15 stories happening all at once, even the most observant individual would find the whole thing a bit challenging. I say approximately because I didn't even come close to finding every character, let alone understanding their role in the 'bigger' picture. At the end of the play the cast assembled and I realised the small fraction of the experience that I has been part of.
Never have I experienced a play that was so beautifully choreographed. Scenes where the characters were either fighting with each other or even their own inner-demons were filled with ballet-like compositions, fraught with intensity. Before seeing the play a friend told me she had to leave have way because the performance made her anxious-I now understand what she meant. As a viewer you feel every piece of contact between characters, every tiny piece of emotion so strongly, because you're experiencing it right there with them.
Apparently up-to 600 theatregoers are present in any one performance. Lucky it feels are more intimate and no one scene seems too cluttered with masked observers. Occasionally cast members will acknowledge the audience, allowing them to be privy to more intimate moments and insights into specific characters. I for one was taken into a chapel bathroom at one point, to, along with 5 others, watch a character take a bath. Do I feel like it helped me understand that characters story? No. Did I spend the whole time wondering why was specifically privy to see this mans penis? No. I was more worried about him getting bath water on my shoes.
One thing the production doesn't lack is detail; there is an absolutely phenomenal attention to it. Once walking 'on set' I was greeted by a town square at twilight with a working fountain, a run-down TV shop, a working 20-seat cinema, a down-at-heel drug-store diner and that was before I had even begun to explore. Nothing felt out of place or sloppily propped; every item of clothing, every towering elm-tree, every speck of dust felt like it belonged. The props were fantastic, the beauty in the set-design unlike anything I have ever seen before. It's easy to see why this production has taken 5 years to develop when you acknowledge how thorough everything is. From the love-letters I found and read in a random drawer I opened, to the potent hospital smell of PCP that was rife in the doctor's surgery. I feel like I want to strip away the actors and the audience, turn on the lights and take in the set like an art-installation, the rooms frozen and ageless how I imagine Miss Havisham's house- seeped in history and stories.
Part of the fun of this production is what you discover. Standing with friends afterwards we all saw something different. One friend got lost in a wardrobe at one point, one friend found himself having a spell cast on him which involved a cast member spitting on his wrist whereas another found herself watching a sex scene alone, in a caravan. As a viewer you walk away feeling like you created your own experience and are completely overwhelmed in a totally new way.
As a whole, A Drowned Man was truly beautiful to watch and I would recommend it to anyone, unless you want to follow a story. When you leave a production and you can't ask questions about a character because you don't know their name, something is wrong.
There really are only two things to say about it. It was completely amazing and I have no idea what the hell happened.