Review – The Drowned Man, National Theatre at Temple Studios

Friday 28 June 2013

the-drowned-man-punchdrunk-posterIt’s been three years since the Whingers tramped out to God-knows-where to see the site-specific, promenady Punchdrunk production The Duchess of Malfi where Andrew sighed,“It’s more of the same, really”. You would think we would learn. But it seems Andrew did learn something; he was having none of it this time round. And, of course, The Drowned Man is more of the same.

But at least this site isn’t quite so specifically far flung –  at the Temple Studios next to Paddington Station, in fact. When Phil had booked all they had promised was that it would be “in Zone 1”. Didn’t they know where it was being staged, or were they being mysteriously teasing whilst ensuring those who had found previous treks to the hinterlands of London too testing still booked tickets?

So, if this report sounds like a re-hash of what we said about our last Punchdrunk experience it is not inappropriate. Phil may not have learned anything but the company have. Last time we complained about the officiousness of the ushering:

But if the power of  Punchdrunk lessens each time, there is one aspect that seems to get more intense – the arrogance. Time was (when going to Faust say) that you felt invited to put on a mask and try out the experience. Now the invitation has become a command. “Wear your mask at all times. Do not touch the musicians’ music. The people in the black masks are NOT their to guide you,” barked the woman handing out the masks. “And enjoy yourself,” Andrew added on her behalf as the Whingers’ party headed off.

Although we are still required to wear masks and the guides (who are reluctant to guide) in black masks are still there, the commands (which come as you are bundled into an industrial lift to start the experience) are more playful and Phil swears he saw an usher smile as he uttered the words “Enjoy the show”. For that one must be grateful.

SPOILER ALERT. If you’re planning to go and have never been to one of these before skip to our ‘Top Tips’.

We are in a Hollywood film studio (Temple Studios) that is making a film “inspired by Büchner’s fractured masterpiece Woyzeck“. It doesn’t really matter what they are making, though threads of that tale can be spotted. If you don’t know the “fractured masterpiece” check out the synopsis on the internet. Apparently someone eats nothing but peas (they should pop along to The Cripple of Inishmaan). Other shards of the story can be spotted: dead bodies are carried around, a pair of scissors float on a pond. How do metal scissors float? Are they made of cork?

Early reports from this show (still in previews) suggested one would be lucky to see much performance but Phil and Punchdrunk virgin, Katy probably spent about 80% of their time watching performers doing something or other. Most of the other 20% was, needless to say, spent in the bar – when they eventually found it with more than a little help from a silent guide.

Happily this is probably closest to their Faustthe first Punchdrunk production we saw, which left us rather impressed. The film within the show seems to be set in middle America in an amalgam of the thirties, forties and fifties. Eyes Without a Face is showing at the impressively realised cinema; it wasn’t released in the States until 1962 and then as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. Hah!

We stumbled into a dressing rooms for the film’s stars and happened upon a film audition. In the sound effects room we enjoyed a woman cracking a twig and bending a handbag under a microphone. But more excitingly a French mime artiste wandered in to have his head pushed into a fish tank and held underwater as she recorded his frantic gurgles. At last a use has been found for mime artists! If the actress becomes indisposed the Whingers are more than happy to step in.

There’s a cavernous forest space full of old caravans (presumably stars’ trailers) where we huddled in a tent and watched the actors getting drunk, fannying round on tables, getting drunk, “singing” and cutting a cake. One male actor is in drag. The caravans looked surprisingly English. It’s Carry on Camping without the laughs. Phil half expected to see a sign “ALL ASSES MUST BE SHOWN” (in the film Bernard Bresslaw and Sid James believe they’re going to a nudist camp, but end up at an ordinary camp site) the ‘P’ from that notice had dropped off.

Asses are shown elsewhere. A naked man washes himself, another writhes in a sand dune, both attract sizeable crowds. The show’s website warns “May contain nudity”; “May contain nuts” presumably wouldn’t have quite covered it. The wait for Willy is nowhere near as long as at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

There is a line dance in a bar and a hoedown at the finale, should you last the course. Dancers hurl themselves against walls, tables and onto the floor à la DV8 dance group (choreography Maxine Doyle). Many scenes build to aggression or orgiastic climaxes with men unsure whether they’re Arthur or Martha. A couple run up and down a snowdrift, a woman dons a mask becoming Norman Bates’ only slightly healthier-looking mother and there are a lot of beds suggesting Tracey Emin has been a long-term house guest and departed in a hurry.

What you make of all this very much depends on how many previous site-specific Punchdrunk productions you’ve seen. If you’ve never been to one you should: you’ll probably be knocked out by the scale, the eye to detail (especially in the impressively dressed shops – designers Livi Vaughan, Beatrice Minns and Felix Barrett, the latter also directs with Maxine Doyle), the atmospheric spookiness of it all and the sheer logistics of how it’s staged. But if you’ve seen several it may seem like a film sequel in a long running francise, same old same old, just bigger and noisier and a constant feeling of déjà vu. You can look as bored as you like, the performers won’t be able to see it.

Immersive theatre doesn’t come with a much more appropriate title than The Drowned Man. If Phil ever decides to go and see another Punchdrunk production think of him as a mime artist and hold his head under water for a very long time. Just to make absolutely sure.

Top Tips: Wear as little as possible (no wonder the performers are constantly shedding clothes), it gets very warm in there. The masks are uncomfortable and get very sweaty. When Phil (who tripped in Mike Gunning’s crepuscular gloom several times) wasn’t worrying about the health and safety aspects he fretted about hygiene; are those masks cleansed between performances?

And to follow the re-hashing theme, here’s a slightly updated list of tips from our trip to Faust.

  • Don’t go in a group – you will find it impossible to keep together (you will find out why!).
  • If you do go in a group, arrange to meet (in the bar, obviously) at a certain time (drinks served by staff – in character – from 8pm).
  • Wear distinctive clothing.
  • Forget about the story. Remember it’s a ‘fractured masterpiece’, you would have great difficulty finding all the elements, let alone seeing them in the right order.
  • Follow the noise. If it’s quiet where you are, go elsewhere.
  • Wear sensible shoes.
  • There is a cloakroom. Drop your bag off.
  • Don’t be afraid to open doors and be nosey.
  • Contact lenses would be preferable to glasses if you wear them.
  • If you see a performer wandering about follow them.
  • Take an anti-bacterial wipe for your mask.
  • Don’t be put off by our list of top tips.




18 Responses to “Review – The Drowned Man, National Theatre at Temple Studios”

  1. Paul Says:

    I believe the masks are cleansed after every performance.

    A solid 4 from me and maybe better if I go again, unusually for theatre I find their shows bear repeated viewing and get richer.

    The one point I’d disagree with is to follow the noise, that’s why you will get ‘fragmentary’, if you latch on to a person and follow them you can see their story. If you pick up on the clues then you are likely to follow a main character.

    Oh, and there are two parallel stories, did you get to see both? I found out elsewhere that you won’t unless you strike out onto different floors, so I did and found a whole new world that I hadn’t seen for the first half of the performance.

  2. ja Says:

    I had a ticket for Wednesday (26/6) but this was cancelled due to technical problems. Rebooked for end of July instead of getting a refund. Was that wise?

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      If you’ve never seen this sort of thing before it’s a wise decision.

      • RD Says:

        I agree – unfortunately I saw it tonight. It is rubbish! I was locked in a room by one of the actors who had nothing to say to me. He tried to be menacing by cutting up an orange with a big knife before attempting to shove a piece into my mouth. I refused and I am not sure if he knew what to do next. Can anyone honestly tell me what that was all about without appearing in Pseuds Corner?

  3. Paul Says:

    Absolutely. I check up on twitter search and it’s about 80/20 pro/con. That’s a good average. One thing, though, some of that 20 really do despise the whole idea. You might be like them but I’m glad that I didn’t listen to them.

  4. Lisa Says:

    Wear distinctive clothing?
    Is there any kind of story? Do you feel satisfied you saw something complete?

    How long does it last? Do you know when its over?

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Distinctive clothing so you can stay with the person you go with in the dark (unless you want to lose them). With masks on it’s not always that easy.

      There are threads of the story in there somewhere. You wouldn’t find all of it on one visit.

      Finishes at 10pm. There’s a finale, which may be done more than once (Faust did the finale twice we’re told). Fairly easy to find it as there’s a huge flow of people heading towards it.

      It’s not their most spectacular of their finales. Could tell you where it is but that would spoil it (not hard to guess where if you explore all the different floors thoroughly).

      • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

        10pm finish for the 7pm shows. Start times vary.

      • Paul Says:

        Split up! If you stay together then you just slow each other up and miss things and if you split up you see two different things and can share what you saw afterwards!

        There’s also a bar at the end with a band playing, so you can stay beyond the finish time.

  5. David Nice Says:

    If ever there were a candidate for the Whingers’ high style, this is it. ***** to you, good sirs.

  6. Karen G Says:

    We were supposed to be going tomorrow but they’ve cancelled it for technical reasons. Wonder if they’ll delay press-night. Think we’ll re-book rather than asking for a refund. Intrigued!

  7. 10,000 sq ft of Pseuds Corner. Hated every square inch.

    The National Theatre offers refunds less a £2 handling charge up to 2 days before performance. Either re-book for the much cooler weather (it was unbearable tonight) or spend your money on something completely different. How about a trip to the theatre?

  8. 98rsd Says:

    Saw their “Macbeth” in NY recently…Much Ado About Nothing would have been more accurate. Ditto the discomfort factor. Only praise to the set designers–spectacular. Very interesting moments that really go nowhere, with lots of decidedly down time in between. For the extremely unjaded, I think.

  9. Dash Says:

    I wasn’t that impressed with Punch drunks latest show, In short…

    Lack of Dialogue
    Lack of Direction
    Sweaty Masks
    Awful Finale
    Lack of interaction (from actors)

    I recall much more interaction and room for audience involvement on Punch Drunks the Masque of Red Death at the BAC back in 2007, where picking up a coin might mean one could later interact with a character who would otherwise ignore you. At the drowned man, everyone is ignored.. Even the Punch Drunk Stella Artois sponsored event ‘The Black Diamond’ was more interesting for me when I saw that in 2011. A much more intimate setting a smaller audience, and all the better for it..

    There was nothing like this on the Drowned Man, all a bit boring and a serious lack of actors anywhere, was a bit like walking through a ghost town in a western film. Not impressed, three hours wandering across two floors, the highlight of the evening was finding the bar which culminated in a cabaret show of sorts and an impressive live band which surpassed anything else we saw that evening.

    I think as they have grown, Punchdrunk have lost the intimacy and involvement they previously were able to offer and their latest show is more about cramming as many mask wearing stooges into a venue as possible, a shame..

  10. Lisa Says:

    Thanks for the tips – had a great time! The following the noise bit did help me as I got lost in the basement!

  11. Andrew Says:

    I realize I’m a bit behind the curve only catching up with The Drowned Man in November but nevertheless………I finally decided to check if it lived up to the generally very positive reports
    The short answer is a definite NO. The majority of the incidents involving actors were highly melodramatic dances and/or fights. The other events featured inaudible dialogue or props such as clutched paper notes that can only be read by the 1 or 2 people pushy enough, or bothered enough to go and peer over the actor’s shoulder. To those who think that those things don’t really matter, I wonder what their purpose might be.
    If you remove these bankrupt theatrical clichés there is something to admire about the set design but this kind of thing has been done much more interestingly in the art installations of people like Ed Kienholz and Mike Nelson.
    I think it was the NT branding that made me think this would be of interest but I was wrong. I’m off back to the South Bank, where The Shed has put on a whole series of interesting and innovative plays.

  12. Bryan Says:

    I’ve been to a shedload of punchdrunk. I’ve been to this 3 times and will probably go again – different show each time except for the end. Punchdrunk aren’t really a secret so I have no idea why anyone who went before and didn’t like the whole thang would bother going again.
    Not as good as Faust or Masque, better than Felt Like A Kiss or Malfi.

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