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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