Last weekend, I went to a preview performance of Punchdrunk’s new production, The Drowned Man, staged with the National Theatre. In New York last year I immensely enjoyed Sleep No More, the immersive mix of Shakespeare and noir staged in a block of warehouses which have been transformed into an abandoned hotel, and wrote at length about my experience. Now it was time to witness their return to London with a loose adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck, set in Temple Studios, a supposed former film studio in Paddington – actually a former Royal Mail sorting office. Here are my barely-coherent thoughts on the night…
For the uninitiated, the company specialises in what is described as “promanade” theatre. Rather than sit in front of a stage, you’re on your feet as you explore a huge environment (in this case, four floors with over 100 rooms) and discover and in some cases interact with the scenes. There’s a lot of it about at the moment, but Punchdrunk are considered by many to be the masters of the form and it was instantly recognisable as one of their productions.
The first tell-tale sign that this was Punchdrunk’s work was the mask I was handed before getting into an industrial lift – exactly the same white beak-like plague mask I’d worn in Manhattan. Then there were the rules, the same as before – do not remove your mask and do not speak. Some similar productions involve a lot more audience participation (something which would make me run a mile), but here you are more like a ghost, as if you are floating around the characters and locations, able to see without being seen. It is surprising how quickly you can go from being unnerved by your own voyeurism to being entirely comfortable with it and the masks can often make other audience members the creepiest thing in the room. That isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional interaction between the characters and the audience, but it is a rarity and more of a surprise treat than something you should expect to happen.
Then there is Punchdrunk’s other trademark – modern, interpretive dance. It isn’t something I would have described myself as particularly keen on at all before Sleep No More, but I was absolutely blown away by the athleticism and emotional power of the performances. There was more of the same here, but with a couple of scenes that turned that completely on its head, with entirely different styles of dance which made for a very satisfying surprise.
It would be unfair to go into as much detail about The Drowned Man as I did with Sleep No More as it has only been running for a few weeks. It was an exciting, exhilarating experience although one that, for me, was always in the shadow of the production in New York. Perhaps I had been spoiled – Sleep No More had already been going long enough to perfect itself and its mix of Macbeth, my favourite Shakespeare play, and Hitchcock, one of my favourite directors, was irresistible. Although the themes of exploitative 1950s-ish Hollywood were easy enough to grab hold of, my only familiarity with Woyzeck was the brief skim of its Wikipedia page before I went, and with the production in its infancy there were still a few teething problems. Hopefully these kinks will be ironed out before long – things like the confused-looking people I saw wondering around without masks early on, nearly opening a few doors that I shouldn’t have been able to and wasting time with a dead-end at the bottom of some stairs.
[Note: Since I posted this, I’ve been told that audience members are given a sheet of paper with a synopsis of Woyzeck to help familiarise themselves with the plot – this wasn’t the case when I went.]
The set design was as richly detailed as had I come to expect, with locations ranging from a trailerpark with caravans to have a nose around to the film studio itself with its standing sets, make-up rooms and even a foley studio to explore. At the very end of the night, I found myself having a look around the back of a motel reception desk, making some grisly discoveries about whoever the owner was. The most spectacular set is on the top floor – I won’t spoil it here, but it provided the most chilling moment of the evening for me. Overall, though, I wasn’t quite as unnerved as I was by some of the rather disturbing sets in Sleep No More, but then I don’t think that was the intention this time around.
As I mentioned, I’m nowhere near as familiar with Woyzeck as I am with Macbeth or Rebecca, so I didn’t get to really follow much of a narrative and it felt more like a sequence of thinly-related but enjoyable vignettes. I had heard that Woyzeck was being played out simultaneously with a male and female lead, but this was only apparent to me in the finale. There were a couple of particularly interesting characters who were related to the Hollywood side of the story and seemed to always appear in the scenes I enjoyed the most. There was one particular moment, witnessed by only four of us in a small room that looked as if it was almost a museum of someone’s life, which was an absolutely breathtaking piece of theatre.
Something they’re doing differently this time around is having a “premium” ticket price level alongside the regular and concession tickets. For this price, you get to see a special introduction and have some “help” with finding your way through the performance. As I didn’t go on one of these tickets, I can’t comment on whether they offer value for money, but I’m not so sure they’re in the spirit of the whole thing.
Despite what I’ve said about enjoying the production in New York more, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Drowned Man. The fact it has been constantly rattling around in my head for the last few days shows what an amazing experience it was and I’m already thinking about experiencing again.
I feel that I was probably helped by this not being my first Punchdrunk experience. There are plenty of surprises that I wouldn’t want to spoil but it helps to be a little prepared, so if you’re planning on going, here are a few tips…
Be aware of what to expect. You will be on your feet for up to three hours. You will be wearing a large mask (which doesn’t work well with glasses) which you’re not supposed to remove and it can get a bit hot and sweaty underneath it. You will be asked to not to talk as you walk around. You will have to do a little work to find the action – it won’t come to you, you’ll have to seek it out yourself. Also, there’s a bit of nudity and mature themes, in case you’re averse to that sort of thing.
Remember what your friends are wearing. If you’re going with friends, chances are you’ll probably get split up at some point. This is no bad thing and, especially if it’s your first time, there’s nothing like exploring by yourself and it means you’ll be able to swap stories at the end of the night about things you saw that they didn’t. But you’ll probably want to get back together with them at some point in the the evening and it isn’t easy to identify your friends when they’re wearing masks, so try to remember what clothes they have on so you can spot them.
Try the bar! You’ll be there for up to three hours, so there’s nothing wrong with taking a little break in the bar. It’s on the ground floor, in the fairground set where you begin your journey. When I went there, it was really busy with a brilliant atmosphere and a rockabilly band on stage. Plus, a shot of whiskey really got my tired legs ready for another explore.
Follow characters you like. The only way you’ll get to follow any sort of narrative is by picking a character who takes your interest and following them around from room to room, seeing their story play out. It’s also a great way to see the rooms come to life. The problem with this is that in the later stages of the night, large crowds can form. But you can always slip away at any point and find something or someone else.
Explore. There is a huge space to look around. Try doors, go up and down stairs, look behind curtains, even crawl through tunnels. And don’t be afraid to root through drawers or read through diaries and letters. The more you look, the more you’ll find.