Strengthening, Cadence and Kicks

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18 months ago I went for a running analysis with Barbara Brunner from Energy Lab BTS. She took onboard my medical history, including my anxiety about exercising my core after having a hernia operation in 2011. She then filmed me on a running machine, gradually increasing speed until I was at my limit.

As we watched the video playback Barbara showed me how my upper body was wobbling like a jelly because I lacked the core strength to support it. She explained that because I’d had a hernia I needed to strengthen the area. This made perfect sense, but I’d been too afraid to try anything for fear of a repeat. She devised a programme of core strengthening exercises to stabilise my upper body, so that I could put the energy saved into moving my legs more quickly.  She also delicately pointed out that “You run like Hulk”, and taught me to bring my elbows in when I run.

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When it came to my legs she said I was in better shape, but she wanted to work on my technique. I have a long stride length as I’m tall, but I needed to improve my cadence. Cadence is the number of steps you take per minute. I learned I should be taking over 180 but was taking 160. She compared slow-mo video of me running with slow-mo footage from the Olympic 10K final, so I could see what to aim for.

Core exercise became part of my routine and I began to consciously adapt my arm placement. I tried hard to improve cadence, but seemed to be getting nowhere. I bought a pedometer, but couldn’t manage to run even a mile at 180 foot strikes per minute. Thinking about it so much was taking the joy out of running, so after a year of trying I’d pretty much given up on ever improving. Then suddenly, after running a PB at the Berlin Half Marathon, I ran a 3 mile easy run at the required cadence. In retrospect, I was building up the physical strength to run a high-cadence style over that year while nothing appeared to be happening on the surface.

Running higher cadence asks more of your leg muscles, but because my form has improved, I’m a more efficient runner. I regularly do bodyweight training and yoga, and could see the benefits in the Berlin Half Marathon where I ran strong the whole way round, instead of fading over the last third. I set out to gain 10 pounds this year, which I’ve achieved, most of it in lean muscle, without supplements, through eating well and training. Consistency pays off.

I’m excited to see what benefits the increased cadence and strength will bring when I run Movember 10K and Paris Marathon over the next six months. I’ve run in Asics Gel Kayanos for years as I over-pronate. Now I want to find a shoe that better supports my developing running style but am not sure where to start. Let me know if you have any tips.

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Nothing Is Ever Simple With Family

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“You never cook me a proper dinner.”

He was bullying her again.

“All the boys at work tell me they come home and their wife has dinner sitting on the table for them. I’m the only one who doesn’t have a dinner waiting when he gets home. What kind of a wife are you?”

“And do all those men stay out drinking in the pub all night? How am I supposed to cook a dinner when I never know what time you’ll be home?”

But he won the argument. When it was over she felt bruised, battered, guilty.

So the next day she decided to cook him a big roast dinner.

It was Saturday but we never did things the normal way. Dad was working on the building site, because he was on a big job at the time, and they were struggling to finish by the deadline. More often than not, this was a deliberate ploy to get overtime from under-pressure companies.

Mum cooked up a huge roast. Beef, gravy, potatoes, cauliflower. I was dreading it. I hated beef, gravy and cauliflower. I used to sneak it into my pockets and put it down the toilet, until I got caught by peas floating back up the u-bend.

Six o’ clock comes, and the children are called to the table.

No sign of Dad.

An empty chair, a steaming pot.

Quarter past six.

Lucy looks hopefully at the empty chair, but it is devoid of expression.

Half past.

We sit there without a word, until she speaks.

“Eat your bloody dinner.”

It’s cold. I hate it when it’s warm. None of us wants it when it’s cold.

But we sense that Mum has been dealt a grave injury so we force down mouthfuls. No one speaks. No one needs to. Someone, maybe me, begins retching. Brussels sprouts.

Chair legs dragged backwards over lino, swift movement and a slamming door. Mum has gone. We sit. It’s not yet safe to move. Elizabeth dutifully chews on a carrot. She will later prove to be the only supporter staunch enough to have consumed the entire cold contents of her plate when I survey the wreckage of the table.

Eventually, when food has been pushed artfully enough around plates to appear to have been eaten, some deposited in the bin, some down the sink, and some in the loo, the girls congregate with Mum in the front room. They say little, but share an unspoken female solidarity from which I, as the only representative of the male species present, am excluded. They cuddle and sprawl into and over her, and she complains about this, but they know she doesn’t mean it. They watch Murder She Wrote while I try to read in my room.

Just before ten, I feel it is safe to sit quietly beside the brood as they watch the end of TJ Hooker, unobtrusive as one of my gender can be around such indignant disapprobation.

The ad break. A cup of tea is made for the aggrieved. We settle down as the News at Ten chimes in on ITV.

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Dong. “Poll tax riots in London today.”

Trevor McDonald, a hint of admonishment in his tone.

Onscreen, a broiling throng, banners, clenched fists, jostling, surging.

Dong. “Casualties as protest in Trafalgar Square escalates into running battle.”

Half a brick, a riot shield, a collision. Men running.  A police officer clutches his bandaged head.

Dong. “Scenes among the worst in living memory.”

Dad tears across the screen, those familiar grey trousers, dirty white sleeves rolled up, dark locks flying. A crunching blow, a policeman’s jaw, a helmet arcs through the air.

Awestruck silence.

One second. Two seconds. Three.

Then a surge of euphoria as we realise what we have seen, and we are whooping, screeching our delight. It’s Dad! On telly!! Hitting a copper!!!

“That’s it, get to bed, all of you!!!!”

We are not easily subdued. This makes it all alright, surely Mum can see that? Several smart recriminations make us certain she cannot.

Upstairs we go, muttering, smarting, still excited.

Downstairs a door slams. The house is consumed in foreboding silence.

At last, the theme from Hill Street Blues signals a partial return to normality.

Some of us flit from bedroom to bedroom.

“Did you see it? It was amazing! Dad on telly!”

A floorboard creeks. The ad break. Catlike, tensed, we prepare to dart back to our rooms. The danger passes, but we dare not tempt fate again.

Too excited to sleep, we brim with excitement in our beds, waiting for Dad to return like Father Christmas down the chimney.

The victor heralds his return with several thumps on the front door. It is after midnight. Had I slept? He is singing, drunk, happy.

Curtains twitch, as we strain to catch a glimpse of Dad, except for Elizabeth, who remembers to hold him in contempt from her bed. Dad is clutching that copper’s hat in one hand and holding a bunch of flowers scavenged from a neighbours’ garden in the other. He is drunkenly unsteady on his feet. Mum remains in her room, as we measure her determination not to let him in.

“Kerry, for fuck’s sake, will you open the door. I have a present for you!”

Silence.

“Kerry!”

Her resolve cannot hold out forever. Eventually, she goes down and opens the door.

He leans in to bestow a beery kiss and the neighbours’ flowers on her, as if that will make everything alright.

She launches into him for parading drunkenly up and down the streets at midnight, not coming home for dinner, setting a bad example to his kids. They enter the house.

We know his charm will thaw her frostiness as we press our ears to separate bedroom doors, until tiredness and our beds overtake us.

We felt the pain he’d inflicted on Mum, and we vowed never to be like him when we grew up. But that night, he was also our hero. Nothing is ever simple with family.

He told me over black pudding the next morning, “We’d a great view from the building site when it all kicked off. Once I saw police getting a hiding, I said ‘Right, lads, down tools, we’re taking the rest of the day off.’”

“What were you protesting about?”

“I couldn’t give a shit about the poll tax, Christopher. I just don’t like the police.”

As he sipped his coffee I finished my egg and bacon, and wondered how I’d ever be as strong and indestructible as my Dad.

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Disclaimers: Some of the names have been changed in the interests of privacy. In no way does the author condone violence towards the police, or any other entity.

Yoga

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I have a memory of my Mum wearing flared trousers at the end of the 70s and telling me about yoga. It was a brilliant form of exercise, she said, that taught you real strength and flexibility. At the end of her practice she felt like she was melting into the floor. My Mum’s face and voice were so illuminated, animated and happy it made me want to do yoga, too.

I remember trying some poses from a yoga book I found lying around my childhood home one day. And reading about breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth, slowly and deeply. I practised those things, and liked it, but self-teaching could only take a kid so far.

As a young adult I bought an Ashtanga yoga video and started practising at home. I lacked the confidence to go to a class, suffering from the mistaken notion yoga was for girls and not realising the terrific opportunity therein. But I enjoyed the video, and over that summer made good progress. As years went by, I tried some other DVDs, and occasionally went to classes. I even went on a disastrous yoga holiday, but that’s a story for another time. While I enjoyed the classes, there was nothing compelling or exciting enough to make me come back for more. 

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This changed when I rocked up this summer at the Yogarden in Bophut, Koh Samui, Thailand. It was rated as the number one thing to do in the area on TripAdvisor. I was glad to find an opportunity to stay fit and move my body in the Thai humidity so I signed up for a beginners’ class.

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Even the journey to the Yogarden was magical, like a treasure trail. The venue is set off the main road past Thai dwellings and a cookery school. I’d begun to doubt I was going the right way when I saw the sign. Turning in, I discovered a beautiful secret garden of a place. Taking my sandals off, I made my way up the steps into the cafe cum office cum hangout area. A brief introduction to Bonnie, the founder of Yogarden followed and then I was shown to the workout space in the open air but with a covered roof. You’re surrounded by nature and can hear birds, cicadas, cats and occasional humans as you work out. Each time I went in the mats were arranged differently- a refreshing touch.

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But my love affair at the Yogarden wasn’t some holiday romance, brought on by the sights, sounds and ambience. It was much more profound. It was the first time I truly connected with a yoga class, and over the two weeks I practised there I opened up physically and mentally through the practice.

I loved Anna Sugarman’s classes so much I made sure not to miss any day she was teaching. Anna brings a real sense of fun and play to her sessions. While there is a carefully thought-out sequence in each session, she wasn’t afraid to wing it and take us to unexpected places, sometimes with hilarious results. I was really surprised and challenged when she asked us to do headstands. Since I was seven I’d struggled to do these and had long told myself I just couldn’t do them. So when Anna supported me, helping me reposition my hands, then to take one leg up and rest it on my elbow, then the other, it was an act of great kindness that astonished me and changed my perceptions of my limitations. She told me confidently I’d be able to do it within a week.

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Anna makes excellent use of music, which she often introduces about a third of the way through the workout, to help deepen the mood, featuring artists from Bright Eyes to Pink Floyd to Guns’n’Roses, as well as more traditional ethereal fodder. She brings things back always to breath, driving each movement, really working to get the group breathing together, and artfully linking it to the rhythm of the music. At the end of one practice, I remember her asking us to breath in as one, and then to breathe out, our breaths intermingling with those of the biology of creatures around us creating a potent soup in the evening air. Focusing on the breath helps take your mind off discomfort when you’re holding a difficult position, and often by going internal, when you come back to the external you realise your body has adjusted and found better equilibrium by relaxing into the pose.

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I developed a lot of strength through the dynamism of Anna’s chaturangas, yoga push-ups engaging the entire core and upper body and demanding explosive power from the legs. I wasn’t previously familiar with the term, but Anna repeatedly moved in and out of Sanskrit and English so fluidly during the sessions that I picked up a lot of terminology. In the vinyasa flow sequences you move dynamically and powerfully through a series of poses. I’d be absolutely dripping in sweat, struggling to open my eyes at times as it was streaming down my forehead. The heat and humidity played a part, but my body was responding to extremely challenging exercise, and therefore growing. The more practised yogis around me hardly broke sweat, despite going deeper and further into their poses than me. It was very humbling for someone who is used to being one of the stronger athletes when I’m with Run Dem Crew to be one of the weaker ones here. I felt privileged to be able to see such artful technicians at work. One girl had such a fantastic combination of grace and strength it was a pleasure to watch, not that I had much time to.

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Anna often asked us to “find your edge”- a challenging place beyond ease and comfort, but not teetering over into pain- the equivalent of threshold pace in running. This was referred to particularly in her yin class, where poses were held for 3-7 minutes. The emphasis was on maintaining the pose, transcending discomfort, and deepening the pose as the muscles opened up. Anna explained that yin related to woman, darkness, the left side and the moon, compared to yang, which is characterised through fire, action and the power and dynamism that embody most of waking life. This class really appealed to me, but my favourite was “Vin and yin”, combining the vinyasa flow and then moving into the cool-down of the yin practice.

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I also took one very different class led by Kom, a hard taskmaster. I believe his father and grandfather are both yogis, but he hadn’t really practised seriously until he became very ill a number of years ago. He found wellness through his practice, and now teaches a very muscular and powerful class which took me to some very difficult places. I’m glad I did it, but decided not to go back for more until I’d got a better base to work from. He also gave a deeper, more powerful three-minute Thai massage at the end of the practice than all my other Thai massages combined.

Three years ago I had a hernia operation. I generally now feel strong in that area, having done core and strengthening work, but at points during these yoga classes, I was taken to the edge of where I felt that part of body could go. It was a little scary, but I listened to my body and didn’t push further when I felt tightness in that area. I told myself to trust the process and reflected that by moving this area gently into more challenging positions I would actually deepen the strength there and safeguard against future injury. I’m really grateful to Anna and Kom for helping me with that.

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The food at Yogarden is as good as I’ve eaten on the island. I particularly recommend the pomelo salad. It tastes a bit like grapefruit mixed with chillies and seeds and was one firecracker of a dish.

I strongly recommend yoga as a fantastic way of building core and full body strength. You will get toned, flexible and strong, but won’t develop huge muscles, and as such it’s ideal for runners like me, although anyone would benefit. It’s great for your mind, helping to develop reservoirs of calm and to extend the horizons of what you consider yourself capable of. I know most of my readers won’t have the opportunity in the near future to go to Yogarden, but if you ever do visit Koh Samui, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It was the absolute highlight of my time there.

In the meantime, you’ll have to seek out a good class where you live, like me. Having found one I really connected with, I feel better able to identify what yoga makes my heart sing, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to maintain at least a weekly practice from now on.  Thank you, Yogarden.

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Lost your mojo?

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A lot of friends have mentioned lately they have lost their running mojo. To a certain extent, so have I. Whether this is due to the summer heat, the constant striving for PBs losing some of it’s lustre or simply boredom, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break.

I haven’t stopped running completely, but I’ve reduced my mileage and dropped the training plans. As a result, I’m still running and still enjoying it. The spark is still there, but I’ve allowed the embers to burn down low for a while before stoking the fire up again.

The first part of this year went really well for me. I won the FlatLine 10 in February and smashed my half-marathon PB in Berlin in March. But after 3 consecutive races not going to plan, culminating in a scorching Hackney Half, it felt right to listen to my body and take a break.

Besides, I knew I was going to Thailand for 3 weeks over the summer. I’m here now, and let me tell you, there won’t be a huge amount of running done in this heat! Out here, I’m all about the yoga, the Thai massages and the swimming. There’s an amazing place called Yogarden just a short walk from my hotel. I’m getting very zen.

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I’m planning to run Copenhagen half marathon in September, but there’s little point in starting a training plan in these conditions, so I’m just going to take that race easy. I’d only have 4 weeks to train for Copenhagen after Thailand, so it would be unrealistic to go for a fast time. It will be fun to explore a new city with NBRO and Run Dem Crew, and enjoying that will be my focus.

Although I’m not following a plan, it doesn’t mean I’ve completely abandoned striving to get better. When I was in London, I was enjoying the twisting and turning of the Run Dem Crew elite suicide pace runs. I’ve also particularly enjoyed Jason’s recent track programme of Yasso 800s. I’ve been able to push myself sufficiently hard within these two sessions for my competitive side to feel satisfied, and I’ve enjoyed not having success determined by something as all-encompassing as a goal race. The best thing about the Run Dem Crew runs is the camaraderie. As Charlie often says, running is the least important part of what we do.

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In the past three weeks I’ve only clocked up 26 miles in total, compared to 20-30 per week, so it’s a big step down in terms of mileage. I started running again in the summer of 2012 and I don’t think I’ve ever done less than three runs a week since then unless I was injured.

The other thing I’ve been doing in my down time is building up my overall body strength, and in particular my core. I was doing bodyweight workouts and yoga in London. These are great as you don’t really need any equipment, and by deepening strength and flexibility you see benefits in running, will be less likely to get injured, and feel better and stronger in general life. This was prompted after doing an intense hour and a half EnergyLab core workout recently and realising I was a long way from where I wanted to be.

Out here in Thailand, I’m enjoying the very different challenges of running at an easy pace in intense heat. It’s great that I don’t have to do a long run or fit in 2/ 3 recovery runs. It’s just a case of pulling on my trainers, stepping out the door and going. I’ve made contact in the virtual world with some locally based runners and am hoping to run with them soon. The yoga and the Thai massages are helping my body rebalance, as well as building core strength. My body is recovering from the mileage and my joints and muscles are getting a break.

So, losing your running mojo doesn’t mean not exercising. It’s a chance to mix things up and let your body recover and grow. Don’t get down-  do other things- swim, cycle, stretch. Running will be there when you’re ready to come back to it. Listen to your body and mind and have a break. Even elite athletes have a month or so off each year. I’m looking forward to building back up to fitness towards the end of the summer, with a renewed appetite for the road, and deeper reserves of energy, strength and flexibility to draw upon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying the views from my hotel room…

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Shouts to Tilly for the track photo.

Hackney Half- A Celebration

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Today, in the scorching sun, we ran, cheered and celebrated Hackney, my friends and I, in a celebration of community by community and through community. Hackney took me into its arms when I needed a new start in life. Years later, so did Run Dem Crew. So it was fitting I should run the first mass-participation race in Hackney surrounded by the family I’ve chosen.

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Tales of heroism and sacrifice abound. Shameek ran 16 miles as he supported other runners that were struggling with the heat. Ash, Paul and Sarah supported Mac, one of our Youngers, as he struggled to come to terms with the challenge. This is what the crew is about.

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Charlie, not able to run, stood like a beacon draped in a Ghana flag, calling forth the names of each runner as we struggled up the hill into the Olympic park, giving us strength when we had none.

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Tilly passed out for ten minutes, but was determined to finish and was ably supported in that by Lucy. Bemi found the heat overwhelming, but was looked after by the crew. Rebecca struggled, but is feeling fine now. Darren updated his status saying he really didn’t think he would finish, but he did. Sadly, Chevy managed to injure himself while running to get a paramedic to help someone else- a sad consequence of his selflessness in organising Cheer Dem and mobilising the secret ninja crew. We wish you well, Chevy, and hope everyone who struggled today is feeling better now.

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When I first moved to Hackney, people refused to come and visit me, scared of Murder Mile and the perceived eastern wilds- their loss. I’ve lived all over the borough for 15 years and it’s been fantastic to see the rest of the world come round to my way of thinking. Hackney rocks: the green spaces, the pubs, and above all the people, the self-confident, warm-hearted, open-minded people of my adopted home. Having raced all over London, it was nice to finally have a big race happening on my doorstep. I’m sure the boost to local businesses from the visitors was very welcome.

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Today felt like a festival of running, as if Glastonbury had come to Hackney. I met members of the Copenhagen crew NBRO, and runners from other crews who had come to take part. It felt very special to have them here in my back garden. Bridge the Gap events have always seemed so exotic, cosmopolitan and urban- it was inspiring to remember our home is just as exciting to others.

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I want to mention Ian’s big PB. He’s quietly been getting on with things at Run Dem, always putting in the hard work on a Tuesday and at track, and it was really great to see him rewarded with a sub 1:30. Sorrell was taking things easy and came home as the 11th female. She and Maja are both doing Run to the Stones Ultra, so Maja ran a 30K warm-up before starting the race. Warwick finished in a massive PB, and crossed the finish line as the first Run Dem athlete hand in hand with Hugo, who had slowed down to help him achieve his goal.

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Thank you to all the people who came out to support. Cheer Dem were immense, as were the people of Hackney, instinctively warming to the name on the shirts and appreciating what the crew stands for. Big shout to my non-running friends who gave up their time. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. I think that’s the first time I’ve had a sign brandished in my honour.

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So thanks for the memories Hackney and Run Dem Crew. This is a day that will live long in the mind.

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Props to Felix, Michael, Azra, Dougie, Maya, Melissa and Run Hackney for the amazing pics.

(Disclaimer: this post has been written on an endorphin high)

Arcade Fire

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If you get a chance to see Arcade Fire this summer, take it. UK readers can catch them at Glastonbury and Hyde Park. Their current tour offers a spectacle on a scale similar to U2’s Zoo TV tour of the early 90s.

The major theme of the current album and tour is mirroring. At Earls Court, in addition to the main stage, there was a B stage towards the back of the arena, and the show began with Mirror Man (see above) dancing on the B stage while the band set up behind a curtain on the main stage. This clever change of focus caused a sea of mobile phones held aloft to change direction to capture that shot for their owners’ Instagram feeds. Suddenly, the curtain fell on the main stage, phones faced front and Mirror Man was forgotten as the opening bars of Reflektor rang out.

Social media allows us to direct and edit the movie of our lives, making us the director of our Warholian 15 minutes of fame. I grew up with Madonna, the queen of media manipulation, and in this day and age many of us are now also adept in these arts. Sometimes, we risk missing the moment through our eagerness to capture it and receive the ego-boost that accompanies a volley of social media likes. Arcade Fire, like all bands, benefit from this hugely, but they are a band who have forged a career out of being unashamedly themselves. The band-members look like normal people, in contrast to the airbrushed wannabes of the next manufactured pop sensation. Ironically, One Direction were the other big show in London last night. Through songs like We Exist, individualism was celebrated and media-perpetuated notions of beauty were challenged during this show. Heady stuff for a rock concert, and many will have completely ignored this narrative in favour of simply enjoying the beltingly good rock songs played with fire and passion by an incredibly talented band of multi-instrumentalists.

My favourite perfomer in the band is Regine Chassagne. She is a real force of nature, and her passionate singing, musicianship and stage presence were a highlight of my experience. The woman I one day marry will possess passion, creativity and energy like Regine. A highlight was her performance of It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus), which took place on the B Stage, backed by a battalion of Thriller-esque dancing ghouls, as she and husband Win Butler serenaded each other in arcs of sound over the heads of the ecstatic audience.

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Arcade Fire are a post-modern band, able to pilfer hooks from 80s classics and build them into anthemic, swelling choruses. I’m so pleased Azra insisted we take a spot right up by the stage, as the kinetic energy of the band’s live performance could be directly and intensely felt so much better there. The energy as the band sang the word “Hey” in No Cars Go was sheer joy.

The closing song, Wake Up, was one of those magical moments of communion in the live arena, where everyone became part of one singing, swaying organism. It was stadium rock at it’s finest. Arcade Fire are a truly big band now, but there’s been no compromise over their artistic integrity, and they rewarded their fans last night with a spectacle as wonderful as their music.

This was a fitting way for Earls Court to bow out as a venue, as it is set to be redeveloped into so-called affordable homes. The sound was excellent and there must have been a huge backstage crew to facilitate such a great experience. Support acts Lorde and 2 Many DJs fulfilled their roles admirably, and the tickets were good value for money.

I leave you with the set list, and this image, courtesy of Azra, taken as the confetti canons exploded overhead during the finale. To see a band like this at the height of it’s powers is a rare opportunity. Catch them while you can.

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Set List:

    1. Reflektor
    2. Flashbulb Eyes
    3. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
    4. Rebellion (Lies)
    5. Joan Of Arc
    6. Month Of May
    7. We Exist
    8. The Suburbs
    9. The Suburbs (Continued)
    10. Ready To Start
    11. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
    12. Intervention
    13. No Cars Go
    14. Haiti
    15. Afterlife
    16. It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
    17. Sprawl II (Moutains Beyond Mountains)
    18. Encore: Helter Skelter (Beatles cover)
    19. Normal Person
    20. London (Smiths cover)
    21. Here Comes The Night Time
    22. Wake Up

The Drowned Man

Something magical is happening in theatre-land. In twenty years as a theatre-goer, I’ve never experienced anything as moving, visceral and all-encompassing as The Drowned Man, the current show by immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. This is a paradigm shift in theatrical experience, and provides a benchmark and blueprint for a new era.

I’m woefully aware the scope of this show is so vast I can’t possibly do it justice, so I intend to write an introduction for those who haven’t seen it, and to share some aspects of the show I’ve found most thrilling. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but there are a few moments I must mention.

The play is set in LA in 1962, on the set of the fictional Temple Studios. Audience members have been invited to witness filming of the final scenes of the studio’s next big picture- The Drowned Man. You explore the film studios, but also the seedy world outside the studio gates, where hopefuls flock dreaming of stardom. Inspiration for the show comes from Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, Nathanael West’s The Day Of The Locust and the work of David Lynch, among others.

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This immersive promenade performance takes place over four floors of a disused Royal Mail sorting office in Paddington, London. This space has been beautifully transformed with a set encompassing film studios, a Masonic temple, desert, trailers, motel rooms and snow. Attention to detail in the set is beautiful. My friend Melissa spent the entirety of her first visit examining it in detail, leafing through diary pages, looking at photographs, so absorbed that the acting completely passed her by. The crunch of wood-chip underfoot as you explore the woods, the sensation of running through sand, are just two tactile experiences you are likely to encounter. Smell is used evocatively as well, particularly in the Doctor’s quarters.

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Over three hours, thirty-two actors are in role and on-stage concurrently, moving around the different locations. Their stories are on loops of approximately one hour in length, and after each hour the characters seamlessly re-set and their stories are re-told. Audience members are free to move wherever they like, and to choose which stories they want to follow, resulting in a beautifully fragmented experience. I have seen the show five times and one of the highlights is meeting with friends after the show to share experiences. Every time, people describe scenes and locations I have yet to unearth. You’d need to see the show at least 16 times to fully follow all 32 characters’ stories. As well as following characters, it is possible to follow objects. The mind boggles.

On arrival at the venue, you will be asked to check your bag. I recommend ditching coats and layers, as you will be moving around the cavernous building for the next three hours. Audience members are given white masks. You are required to wear this at all times during the performance, unless directed to remove it by a performer. You can wear glasses under the masks, but I recommend contacts. You are not allowed to talk while wearing the mask, and are encouraged to split up from friends and go it alone. I find the masks to be wonderfully freeing. The anonymity of wearing one emboldens audience members to open drawers, leaf through papers and otherwise invade the privacy of the characters, but the convention of not being allowed to talk constantly anchors you in a passive, somewhat voyeuristic role.

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One of the most magical aspects of this show is the potential for one-on-ones. A one-on-one is a performance shared between a performer and one audience member. At certain points in the narrative, some characters will select an audience member to share in such a moment. If you’re the nervous type, you can decline. Personally, I have found these moments to be among the most exciting and memorable in my experience of any show. Usually, the actor will take the audience member into a private room and lock the door. The actor then removes the audience member’s mask- quite a vulnerable moment the first time- and from there on you can speak and interact fully: how much you do is up to you. The character imparts further knowledge of their predicament, motives or ambitions. Some will offer an alcoholic drink- you don’t have to take it. The excitement of sharing what has been revealed in these moments with friends in the bar after a performance is hard to match.

The most profound one-on-one experience I have had was actually just a moment and was in full view of the audience. One particular character, played by the actress Laure Bachelot, had returned home overwhelmed with guilt over her infidelity the night before. For just a moment, she looked right at me, her eyes boring through the eye-holes in my mask, and we connected. Her eyes spilling with tears, she mistook me for her husband, said she was sorry and enveloped me in an embrace. As I held her, her whole body wracked with sobs, moving mine. It was a profoundly touching, elemental moment- she may have been acting, but those tears on my chest, that emotion making her body shake in my arms, was all too real. It was my natural instinct to try to comfort her, but moments later the illusion broke, as she realised I wasn’t her husband, and withdrew. I have never experienced moments like this in a theatre setting before and they make this show so special.

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I am lucky enough to have spent a day training session on the set. One of the early practical activities was to develop the ability to switch from a very wide-focus to a very narrow one. It’s this changing of focus from panoramic, when performers are playing to audience members surrounding them, to personal, in the one-one-ones, that gives the show it’s magical feel. Even if it’s just a meaningful look, for moments in this play there is no-one else in the room but you and the performer you are following.

Conor Doyle, who led the workshop, explained the paradigm shift for the actors as follows: In a normal production, character A seduces, intimidates or comforts character B. In a Punchdrunk show character A seduces, intimidates or comforts the audience. This is where the wide vision and the narrow vision really comes into play. Much of the time, character A is performing their action wide-screen, for everyone present. At other times, we as audience members get to feel the full intensity of their acting in private moments such as the one described above.

The dancing in this show is just incredible, as the live-action shot below demonstrates. It’s quite something to be on set with the performers, feeling the swish of air as they spin past you- this is akin to feeling the air vibrate in an Opera Up Close performance. I particularly love one sequence which takes place on and around a classic car. The soundtrack is also wonderful. Music is used to create mood, to build tension and to cue scenes. It evokes a certain faded glamour, from Chet Baker to the Shangri-Las. David Lynch is a clear influence, but the soundtrack from the movie Perfume is used particularly powerfully. There’s an excellent Spotify playlist that has been set up containing most of the music used in the show.

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There is so much to discuss, theorise about and analyse in this play, and an excellent Facebook group has been set up by fans. Check it out here should you wish to unlock some of the show’s secrets…

https://www.facebook.com/groups/thedrownedman/

In 1994 I saw a show called Street of Crocodiles by Theatre de Complicite. It blew my mind, and in that moment I saw the beautiful potential of theatrical experience. It has taken twenty years, but I can safely say that The Drowned Man has had a similar impact on me. It’s a bit like the dawning of a new era in theatre, akin to The Beatles arriving on the music scene. I’ve seen excellent immersive theatre productions before, for example Reverence, by Goat and Monkey, but this is on another level because of the passion and intensity of the performers and your proximity to them.

I have watched a handful of theatre productions more than once. I have seen some plays many times in different productions. But until The Drowned Man there was never a need to see a show repeatedly, because each time the experience is fresh, revealing new secrets. I urge you to see it. Tickets are not cheap, but you get your money’s worth in terms of quality and quantity of acting and the fantastic set. Some have felt frustrated by the lack of a clear narrative, but I see that as a strength which rewards repeat visits. Whatever you think, I guarantee a memorable evening. The show closes on July 6th, so act quickly.

Tickets are available here:

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

The show contains some nudity and is deemed suitable for over 16s.

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