For a dramatically different night out in London why not immerse yourself in a sensory theatrical experience?
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Revue is a groundbreaking theatre event from the innovative company, Punchdrunk.
It’s an experience like nothing I’ve seen before. The show mixes theatre, visual art and design with a complex series of storylines that take place across four floors of a disused warehouse.
Wearing a mask and walking in silence with a crowd of fellow travellers, the show plunges you into a sensory world where you decide the path of your own theatrical journey.
Unsurprisingly, it’s already gaining a huge cult status with packed shows at the old post office in Paddington which has been converted into a 1960’s Hollywood film studio.
Behind the mask
On arrival it’s clear this is going to be an evening like no other. Once inside you’re given a white mask resembling something from a horror movie or The Phantom of the Opera.
Then you’re ushered along a series of corridors into a lift where an actress welcomes the masked visitors to the studios and introduces the key protagonists.
As the lift doors open, our guide lets some of the guests out and then bangs the doors shut, taking the remaining audience to a different floor, decanting us into a large space with the sign ‘Temple Studios’.
Our hostess warns us that there will be two murders. Where and when they will take place is not divulged.
A shiver runs down our spines.
Her parting words of advice are to watch how far you stray from the main path because “there are unscrupulous people out there”. We’re also advised to make our own way and not to follow our companions.
The sense of disorientation is almost overwhelming as we shuffle out of the lift, looking bemused.
This is not the type of promenade theatre I remember from trips to strolling productions of Shakespeare in ruined castles!
At first, it’s tricky to decide what to do and where to go. The whole building has been decked out with numerous sound stages and film sets. There are a multiplicity of options.
I try to remember the brief plot summary we were given whilst waiting in the lobby which is now stuffed in the handbag which I had to give in at the cloakroom before entering the studios.
Racking my brains, I recall something about a tragic story featuring star-crossed lovers including a drugstore cowboy, a studio diva and an American sweetheart. But I’d lost the plot and the piece of paper long ago!
Basically, there are two versions of the main story playing out simultaneously – and many more hidden secrets to discover.
The stories are acted out across the vast sound stages which include a small town, a trailer park, a woodland and a desert complete with sand dunes.
Expect the unexpected, wherever you decide to roam.
I’m told that the drama is inspired by Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck. It’s performed by a large cast of actors and dancers with the emphasis on physical theatre.
If you don’t move out the way, you’re likely to get tangled up in the action!
Some scenes take place in large spaces whilst others play out in tiny, confined rooms with a handful of people watching. This gives the whole show a feeling of intimacy and immediacy.
There are dozens of locations to explore. At one point I found myself disappearing into a series of voluminous curtains that engulfed me.
Another time I ended up inside a cupboard. Just as well I’m not claustrophobic.
Then I stumbled upon a doctor’s surgery where I bumped into a strange actor amongst the alarming medical records – a disconcerting experience.
Everyone’s experience during this show is unique. Punchdrunk removes the audience from their comfort zone and loses them in a parallel universe.
On several occasions I felt scared, anxious and confused. But then I also felt a sense of exhilaration, excitement and adventure.
One of the most disturbing moments came when the crowd followed a male actor through a stage set towards an office. As he unlocked the door, he ushered a female audience member inside.
Before the rest of us could follow, he slammed the door shut and locked it.
We tried to make out what was going on through the murky windows but it was hard to see in the dark. Then they disappeared from sight completely.
We never saw them again.
Back in the woods on my own I had a deep sense of foreboding that I would be whipped away by an unscrupulous stranger.
Although I knew this was a theatrical construct, my heart was pounding! Would I become a victim too?
So I hurried back to the main street to the safety of the crowd and away from the dark shadows.
Make your own movie
The Drowned Man is all about making your own movie and storyline, matching together the dramatic pieces like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Punchdrunk presents a huge palette of possibilities – it’s a bit like being presented with the unedited rushes for a film which you have to cut together.
After an hour, I was starting to come up with my own version of the story, although this was derailed several times as the theatrical action constantly threw up surprises, twists and turns.
There are a multitude of characters including the Dust Witch, the Seamstress, Badlands Jack, The Fool and The Gatekeeper. Each has their own storyline which you can follow.
Being so close to the actors is an intimate and compelling experience. It’s hard not to be blown away by the intensity of the performances.
The cast play out their dramas, seemingly unaware of the audience. From time to time, an actor interacts with an audience member, adding a sense of surprise.
Wearing masks enables the audience to become anonymous and get closer to the action. We can almost feel the breath of the performers on us.
As time goes by, we become voyeurs watching the action unfold whether in a saloon bar, strange house or trailer park.
Music provides a soundtrack to these tales of the unexpected with solo singers and a full-blown band in the bar.
The production design is outstanding and draws us in with its impressive layering of detail. In many rooms there are handwritten letters, notes and books which the masked audience can read.
The visual designs are breathtaking with an attention to the smallest of details that I’ve rarely seen in a theatrical production of this scale before.
Every element of the visual design provides clues and context to the stories. The devil is – as they say – in the detail.
Grasping the plot
By now I was starting to discover that it was a good idea to follow one or two characters for a while to get a grip on the many inter-connected story lines. Otherwise, it’s hard to grasp what’s going on.
I hitched a ride with two main characters as they moved from a house to the front porch and then onto street level where they became embroiled in a dance of passion.
There’s a spectacular physical dance sequence and fight on top of a car which spills over into the masked observers. You feel like you’re part of the action.
Many scenes involve acrobatic performances brimming with physicality and energy.
The unpredictability of the show means that you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. There’s a surprise around every corner.
The roaming audience are witnesses to two murders. Everyone becomes a voyeur. Complicit in this film noir thriller.
Camera, lights, action…
It’s also easy to miss much of the action. After an hour I realised there were three or four floors to explore and many more stories to be unpackaged. My film plot required a major rewrite!
As I grew bolder, I explored further afield. On the top floor I discovered a film set covered in sand where a distressed male character was flailing around on the ground.
I didn’t expect what happened next. He whipped off his clothes and performed a naked dance like a whirling dervish, as if possessed by demons.
The whole experience was surreal, a bit like being an extra in the darkest of David Lynch movies.
Things get weirder as time goes by but I’m not going to spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the show.
There are moments of madness, beauty and brutality. It’s riveting stuff.
The show culminates in a hoedown style finale when all the actors assemble for the first time together. Gradually, the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. Perhaps.
The Drunken Man is in a league of its own. Punchdrunk has succeeded in reinventing promenade theatre and creating a truly memorable spectacle.
Punchdrunk has created a sprawling, surreal world which is impressive, imaginative and sometimes baffling.
There are deserts, mountains, hillsides, woodland and even a rain shower in this visually arresting extravaganza.
As I left, I overheard people saying that their friends have seen the show three times. It’s hardly surprising when you consider how many different narratives are running in parallel.
By deconstructing the structure of the play, Punchdrunk’s show allows for return visits and multiple interpretations.
After my trip I realised that I’d missed some key scenes (I’m not telling which) and even some locations including a children’s dormitory, complete with teddy bears. How did I miss that?
But that’s kind of the point. You aren’t supposed to see everything. After all, The Drowned Man is meant to be a journey of exploration and discovery.
This is immersive theatre at its very best.
Punchdrunk will show you something you’ve never seen before. You’d be mad to miss it!
Tammy’s top tips
Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is currently running to the end of April 2014 although its run may be extended.
Tickets are available online or from the National Theatre box office, who are the co-production company for this show. Performance times vary. You can also book specific time slots for arrival at the event.
The show takes place at Temple Studios which is located opposite Paddington Station at 31 London Street.
This is a promenade show with the audience of up to 600 guests constantly on the move, following the performers and exploring the sets.
It is hard to remain with your mates and Punchdrunk recommend that you “go it alone” to get the most out of the performance.
On the way out don’t miss the fantastic bar, decked out in full studio style as you enter the ‘wrap party’. It looks absolutely beautiful with feathers in glass bowls and Hollywood-style decorations.
No bags, mobile phone or other distractions are allowed inside Temple Studios. Expect to leave everything in the cloakroom.
There is no talking whatsoever allowed during the three-hour show.
Wear sensible shoes because the show involves a lot of walking. I felt like I’d walked 5-6 miles during the three hours.
At the end of the show you’re allowed to keep your mask which spooked out some folk when I was waiting at the bus stop on the way home!
Curiosity is the key. The more you explore, the richer your experience will be.
Be bold and immerse yourself.