The Drowned Man
When: July 2013
Where: Temple Studios (Old Paddington Sorting Office)
I think I just visited the best theme park ever, or was it a cinema, the theatre or a real life open world game? My three hours of The Drowned Man felt like I'd entered David Lynch Land. One of our group said that it felt like queuing for a ride as we went in, they were not far wrong. I originally thought that the lack of imagineering as Disney might call it was missing from the queue area, in retrospect I was wrong as going past the BBC watching people queue outside in the rain was far less glamorous than the metal walkway that led to Temple Studios. Once it was our groups turn to go in we were sent down a serious of poorly lit corridors that were designed to disorientate us until we reached an induction room where we were given our masks. After we were fully masked and slightly confused the real events began.
We entered a lift, it was like something out of Disney World complete with a uniformed, American accented
guide telling us about the studio, the stars and the rather shady town that lay outside the studio gates. The lift stops and our group begins to depart before the lift operator slams the door shut and takes us up a little further into that shady town. We walked out of the lift feeling somewhat disorientated into the misty air filled with the smell of a dry ice induced fog. There was a church to the right and a set of small caravans to the left where most people headed and not having been to one of these Punchdrunk events before I thought I'd follow the crowd around and began to explore the trailer homes, not feeling overly interested in the fight that had broken out in front of the church.
It was pretty obvious that the level of detail put into the sets was frighteningly good, newspapers, notes, magazines, artefacts, cigarette butts, posters warn out furniture, you really felt like you had stepped back in time and were invading somebody's home. The other important thing became clear that music and lighting would act as our guide to focus our attention on to the performances. The scenes we were witnessing were part of two parallel stories of man meets woman, who has an affair with another man and is caught in the act at a party. The man becomes irreconcilably jealous and murders the woman. One of the stories takes place in the studio, the other in the town outside, though many of the scenes, back story and incidents go between the two locations.
The best and worst things about the performance is that you have an almost free reign to wander anywhere you want, shops, buildings, restaurants as well as through the studios, offices and back rooms of Temple Studios. It's great to explore in your own time, being free to examine props, enter the cinema and sit down, sit at the bar. The downfall of this is that you can easily miss the performances that drive the story, or lose track of the story or character you were following. I found it much easier to keep track of goings on in the town area (The William and Mary story) which was a lot less crowded than the studio story (Wendy and Marshall).
I enjoyed most of the set piece dance performances, though there was a little too much theatrical rolling on the floor for my liking. Possibly the most exciting part of the William and Mary story was chasing the two of them up to the sandy wastelands where Mary is strangled to death. The Wendy and Marshall story seemed to fly past me. I got caught up in the back story of casting and picking the star and following one actress to a sad death and another to the wrap party where she takes part in a rather fun magic trick.
One thing that I couldn't ignore was the Lynchian styling of The Drowned Man. From the mysterious cowboys, the Americana, 50s and 60s pop music to the ambient noise that fills the air when a scene is about to climax it's hard to ignore. Not only that, there was a room complete with a black and white checked floor, a man in front of a red curtain lit with a spot light who over sees a strange initiation ritual of the new star carried out by small men with deformed faces wielding baseball bats, all that was missing was the dwarf talking backwards!
To sum up, The Drowned Man offered an experience like nothing else, I didn't know where I was or what I was doing and the freedom to explore and see different things made for great discussion afterwards. None of us saw both the murders or both the parties and we all saw scenes that the other three had not. However, with the freedom comes frustration, it would have been nice to have been able to see all the scenes and all of the stories or for a little more guidance. At times the only way to follow a story tranche was to run after the actors pushing past anyone that didn't step aside before they lost you through a serious of unmarked doors, corridors and stairways. By the end of the performance I felt a mix of relief and disappointment and was left with one question that I could not answer, if I saw this again with the knowledge and experience of the first viewing would it be improved with repetition like a favourite film where the backgrounds, back story and references add layers of meaning and enjoyment, or would it all feel flat, boring and predictable once the secrets were uncovered?