If the £50 ticket price for Punchdrunk’s Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable looks prohibitive, there’s an austerity version. It’s an all-day but budget friendly affair. Spend the morning playing your favourite first person adventure game, preferably one that affords opportunities to follow characters, sporadically interact with them and enter secret rooms. After lunch watch consecutive episodes of Twin Peaks followed by Lynch’s Inland Empire, skipping dinner and ending the day with a full cheese board. When you fall asleep you’ll be jinxed if your brain doesn’t do the rest. What follows will be fragmentary and discombobulating. Your garments will be saturated with sweat. You’ll be one with the big spenders.
The Drowned Man is a reminder that for some in theatreland, traditional board treading has become passé. I’m not sure when this shift occurred, when the currency in sitting quietly in the dark while a uniform chunk of dramaturgy played out on stage was burnt up, presumably by iconoclastic young bucks who fancied themselves as the stage equivalent of the KLF, but it’s happened. Punchdrunk have decided that the traditional play is a dinosaur and they’ve cast themselves as an extinction baiting meteorite.
What they’re selling is interactivity; your chance to fulfil that long-dormant ambition to appear on Knightmare. They hope to awaken senses deadened by the all too familiar relationship between audience and company. The old thinking declared that a great play could induce all manner of emotions – joy, sadness, fear, elation, depression, arousal – coupled with a cerebral massage, but for Generation Y, who demand to be folded into their entertainment like fudge pieces into cake mixture, who crave a tactile sensation for their overstimulated brains, conventional wisdom is bunk. Is theatre better now it’s acknowledging us, rather than being aloof and indifferent to our presence, the arrogant bastard? That’s hard to say when the finished product feels like the bastard child of film and gaming. Filaming? Gamilm? When the options are this catchy the concept looks unstoppable.
Now we’re sensation junkies, determined that the theatrical be something that’s done to us rather than performed for our delectation, we’re going to need ever stronger fantasies to achieve the same hit. Punchdrunk’s legacy could be a new kind of porn, specially tailored for the anesthetised middle classes. In five years we’ll be visiting a mocked up Soho alleyway in the guise of a prostitute to experience a simulated sexual assault. In ten years it won’t be simulated, your ticket entitling you to a beating and orificial violation – your slumped and bleeding body photographed for the company’s website to be mounted above a disclaimer that reads, “all our performers are trained in non-lethal forms of aggression and are regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections”.
If you like that they’ll be shows that allow you to enjoy being kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer, to be put on trial for murder (with the result being legally binding thanks to a special agreement between the production and Crown Prosecution Service), and a show called “Afterlife”, with hypnotism facilitating the belief you’ve died while your friends and relatives gamely play along, apparently indifferent to your spectral presence. There’s every chance some of these shows are already in production.
In the here and now we have our fable. A show that could use a guidance pamphlet offers none. There’s little to prime you for the action or steer you once you’re imprisoned within the zone of artifice. A queue handout outlines a couple of parallel scenarios, both of which pleasingly contain sex and death. Descending in the lift you’re privy to a couple of asides from the attendant. After that you’re on your own. Later you learn the choice is between ogling a character, enjoying their abstract dance routine, then stalking them, or abandoning the jigsaw puzzle and heading off on a voyage of aimless self-discovery. Wanting it all and conscious that I’m being greedy for someone who’s paid a mere £50, I try to have it both ways. The result is an inevitable lack of purchase on the narrative threads and a modest detachment from this closed world.
A week’s dole money buys you four floors of intricately dressed studio space, populated by vintage performers whose Hollywood dream has been corrupted by some unseen but tangible malevolent force. Perhaps it’s us. We follow them, if we care to, witnessing a loose scenario play out; affairs, murder and the behind the scenes corruption of young and pretty starlets. To keep it simple there’s cross-dressing and wardrobe swapping – the bleeding of identities. A psychotropic score’s pumped into the half-light.
The audience, or supporting cast to give them their proper title, are compelled to wear creepy white face masks. This demarcates Joe and Jacinda Public from the troupe and guarantees proceedings have the feel of an Eyes Wide Shut party. The allusion’s not lost on the company who aren’t afraid to grope some patrons, stripping a man naked in front of others. Not being permitted to fuck the players feels ridiculous under the circumstances. Roll on the next decade.
As rejects from a masquerade ball no one organised, we’re free to go where we will and get up close and personal with the characters. The abolition of boundaries, the traditional separation of player and audience, presents challenges for both actor and spectator alike. A Zardoz-type overseer booms, “lose your friends and find your own way”. It’s a nice try but crowd control, or more accurately dispersal, is contingent on people abandoning their herd mentality and daring to wander alone into darkened nooks and uninhabited caravans; treasure troves of props and hand written clues.
A few go rogue, others congregate around a character and follow them in the hope of finding a narrative fragment they can bolt onto the last. Bloody story tourists! The players manoeuvre well through the hordes for the most part. Occasionally they back into them by accident. Sometimes they’re forced to contort to prevent a collision. Others plough on with their scenes in hope and expectation of the emboldened voyeur moving when it becomes obvious they’re now an obstruction. Some, well me, don’t get the message and get half a glass of champagne thrown over them. I pray Punchdrunk aren’t working on a follow-up entitled “Golden Shower”.
Despite these practical difficulties The Drowned Man’s scale ensures it will live long in the memory. It’s a monument to monuments, more installation than play, more dream than drama. No three hour session’s going to be enough to take in every detail of those musty sets (patron: Norma Desmond), nor every incident. There’s material for several wallet wounding visits. You might think that’s a problem. Only the well off can hope to enjoy it in its entirety; a regressive precedent set by no less a publically funded body than the National Theatre.
One can admire the show’s choreography, drink in the atmosphere and applaud the ambition while lamenting the conceptual flaws and the sense that Punchdrunk have built a highway to the moon to find a place well marked on Earth – the desire to ensnare people in theatre, holding them close and drawing a veil over the outside world – a problem those dull traditionalists used to solve with great writing, cultural relevance and fine acting. The impulse to replace that with spectacle, whether intentioned or not, does affiliate this show very closely with Hollywood however, on which basis it may be judged a considerable and timely success.
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is booking until December 30th. Go to: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable for details.
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