The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Patricia and Dennis Cleveland-Peck review this unique theatre experience

Vinicius Salles. Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable. Photo Birgit & Ralf

Vinicius Salles. Punchdrunk.
The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable. Photo Birgit & Ralf

Sam Booth and Conor Doyle. Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable. Photo Birgit & Ralf

Sam Booth and Conor Doyle
Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable. Photo Birgit & Ralf

Fernanda Prata, Jesse Kovarsky. Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable. Photo Birgit & Ralf

Fernanda Prata, Jesse Kovarsky
Punchdrunk. The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable. Photo Birgit & Ralf

Site-specific, immersive theatre, of which Punchdrunk  is a leading exponent, demands more of its audience than conventional theatre but can also deliver more.

In this production which takes place in a massive abandoned sorting office next to Paddington Station, one arrives, dons the obligatory mask and is taken down to the basement in an industrial type lift from which one (I say ‘one’ advisedly as it is suggested that each individual should take the journey alone) stumbles out into the dark imagined world of an abandoned film studios circa 1960.

This is a promenade performance and from this moment, observing the rule of silence, you can, at your own pace, grope your way through dimly lit corridors, enter empty offices and examine letters on desks, push past eerie costumes hanging in the haze-ridden half-light and find yourself in dressing rooms smelling of greasepaint and face powder.  From time to time you’ll come across characters, lying prone or engaged in enigmatic activities including the amazing silent dancing which is one of Punchdrunk’s signatures.   You’ll also wander on to  various film sets; a white mound which could be a ski slope, a strange woodland, a bar, a trailer park or outside a cinema where the film playing is called Eye Without a Head… You can suddenly catch sight of a couple kissing passionately – or killing each other.    There is a vague narrative involving two couples, passion and murder but it matters little that it is almost impossible to follow. Here everything fragmented and confusing.

Sometimes you will feel you are completely alone in this four-storey building while at others large groups of masked people will emerge  from the shadows and silently pass you by.  The atmosphere is always edgy and sometimes ominous and you’ll experience a gamut of emotions . It can take you out of your comfort zone at one moment and deliver a clever aesthetic surprise the next – as when we came across a dozen or so men clad in black wearing top hats who were sitting silently in rows as if watching a play. We just had time to register that they were scarecrows made of straw when one suddenly got up and walked to the front…

We knew more of less what to expect having attended Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death as well as several pieces by   DreamThinkSpeak the Brighton-based company which produces similar site-specific pieces. From time to time there was a slight element of the fairground ghost-train about this piece but amazing attention to detail in creating the atmosphere with authentic artefacts and costumes and even different smells, marked it out as a high-level artistic production. Our only criticism was the sheer volume of the ambient sound – and we were not the only ones– we observed several people stuffing their fingers in their ears as the decibels reached unnecessarily high levels. Maybe just a blip on the particular night we attended but a pity as a great deal of attention had gone into the sound track which was just too overwhelming to enjoy.

Neverthless a unique experience and one which will resound with you for a long time.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable
Temple Studios
31 London Street
London W2 1DJ

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/punchdrunk

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