It’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 Faust, the 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.