Wednesday 22 January 2014

The Drowned Man : A Hollywood Fable

Punchdrunk and National Theatre, London


Created in collaboration with the company
Directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle

Jesse Kovarsky and Fernanda Prata

There is currently a vogue for film studio experiences in London. Warner Brothers have long set up their family-friendly Hogwarts operation out in suburbia, whilst now in the city centre Punchdrunk together with the National Theatre have converted the multi-floor acreage of a disused Paddington warehouse to create their 1930s Temple Studios, an adult-only spectral opposite to the wizardry of Watford. If Hollywood gave us film noir, then The Drowned Man is theatre noir. Disturbing, challenging and ultimately murderous. 

Key to Punchdrunk’s achievement is their de-humanising of the audience from the outset. If you've come with a partner you are encouraged to split up, to wander around the show in non-speaking isolation. For many this suggestion proves too challenging, with audience members often seen clutching friends' hands for fear of separation. To enhance the de-humanisation, all attendees don masks that are designed to allow comfortable breathing and vision, but which completely obscure faces. With a mildly grotesquely beak-like design it's not only audience faces that are made ugly, it is their locust-like behaviour too. The jostling and shoving by the crowd, chasing after scuttling performers as they run between scenes, is often un-settling and occasionally aggressive.

Amidst the production’s cleverly created locations (though the dim light, as in fairground ghost trains of old, no doubt serves to mask over any cracks in the scenery) actors emerge from time to time to give tableaux of action and dialog that broadly follow a pre-published synopsis. And here's where the show gets really creepy. The audience walk around the performers, encouraged to observe what's happening because this is performance-art after all. Yet fifty masked people, voyeurs let’s call them, watching actors occasionally simulating sex makes for a disturbing spectacle in itself. It almost suggests a “frightfully tasteful” dogging session, laid on for London’s theatre-going intelligentsia. 

With a plotline of decadent deceit, deception and death, the script could easily have been written by Stanley Kubrick out of Billy Wilder. It is an ingenious concept, with performers bringing the same levels of detached excellence that one could expect wandering around the attractions at a top notch theme park. Interactive and immersive maybe, but this show’s chilling fourth wall is unmatched in its opacity. The choreography and balletic movement throughout are faultless (well done Maxine Doyle) and any show that includes April March's Chick Habit in its soundtrack, a paean to murderously vengeful girl-power, has got to be worth checking out.

The Drowned Man is more of a themed experience than a theatrical story. Heavily stylised, the continuous and often very loud music masks what little dialogue there is. If the story becomes hard to follow, relax. Be safe in the knowledge that if you are struggling to keep up with the narrative, it’s probably the same for the creepily masked guy stood next to you. Ultimately this is a show that has more to do with recreating the intrigue of a bygone era than following a detailed arc. 

On one’s feet for three hours, the promenading is at times arduous and some form of interval for half-way sustenance would not go amiss. After the finale there is an opportunity to de-mask and purchase kitsch cocktails in a themed pop-up bar. Refreshment that is too little, too late and too pricey, but at least Punchdrunk spare us having to exit via a gift shop.

Depicting a bygone era of America's Pacific coast, the show suggests either Hollywood Babylon or the Hotel California, take your pick. Though as the last half hour ticks down and you find yourself stumbling across the same played-out scene for a second time, there is more than a hint that whilst you may be able to check out any time you like, you can never leave. 

Nick Hytner shocked us with Jerry Springer The Opera on his arrival at the South Bank and amongst his parting shots, The Drowned Man offers another assault on our mainstream expectations. Beautifully imagined, it is distinctly unconventional. With the show's run now extended into 2014 this is, if nothing else, certainly a stylish component of the capital’s theatre scene.

Booking until 9th March

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