Half way through ‘The Drowned Man’ I found my self watching exactly the same scene I had seen once I had felt my way through a maze of stacked boxes and darkness after being bundled out of the elevator and told to ‘be careful on the streets.’ I realise that I have found myself in the position of a very real flashback. This had already happened, only now, I know the names of the two men, had some idea of why they have been acting so strangely, and knew exactly what their fates would be, where they would go, and the people they would meet. Indeed a strange feeling, made even stranger when one of the men looks into my eyes, examining me deeply, as if looking into his own future, and yet staring past me and through me as if I was not there, but giving me the feeling that I really am part of this experience.
Punchdrunk’s newest production of ‘The Drowned Man,’ where two similar stories run in parallel, is loosely based on Büchner’s unfinished and fragmented story of ‘Woyzeck.’ A lowly soldier driven mad by jealously by his adulterous wife ending in murder and death. In this production this simplicity of a story is vital, because whilst spending time following the main characters is important for those who crave a satisfying story my advice to all those wishing to be ‘punchdrunked’ is to follow for a while, but not to let your hankering for a story thwart your curiosity. Whilst running through the trail of all four floors, the imagination and the boundless ingenuity of the set designers ensures that even if you are alone in a room, drawers can be opened and investigated, phone numbers rung and personal letters read – which at any moment could be snatched out of your hand by a character taunted by your seemingly invisible involvement and intrusion.
The set works in a way that at one moment I found myself in a raucous party where jealously and intense envy operated almost unnoticed through the vast crowds of other audience members and loud music, to being caught inadvertently in a caravan in a seedy looking film trailer park where two characters share a romantic exchange uninhibited by the slightly awkward situation which I haunted. This production has hailed the role of the audience member. As well as capturing glimpses of the characters’ stories through my unanimous mask, I found myself making up my own story, running around the set to the incredibly dynamic music created by Magnus Fiennes affecting the movements of the actors and myself.
Curiosity augmented with fear at what might be round the corner really heightens this performance into an experience. Frustration is rife and there is a constant ubiquitous hardship in losing a character in the flurry of people, but this is a space that forces you to make illicit, irrational and daring choices as an audience member. It coerces you to choose which corner to turn, and which door to take in this seemingly endless space, choosing to ignore ‘do not enter’ signs and snubbing the advice of characters. The blood drenched girl I ran after at one point took me down to the parallel world which marred my understanding of the production at first, but her wild movements and emphatic dances, matched with little speech mirrored the world I had just come from and increased the vitality that this performance gave to me as an audience member. The production and the choices made by all those all involved gave me enormous scope to imagine whatever I wished. Still a day later I am thinking about the lives of many of those imagined and absurd characters in an equally impossible world, scrambling to get a grip of reality and yet obsessed with the celluloid space which was dually inhabited.
To tell you to go and see ‘The Drowned Man’ does not seem to be enough. It is an experience first and foremost, and one that I have no doubt can be experienced again and again. It will leave you asking questions, wanting to open more doors, turn over more papers, and stretch the limits of ‘audience member’ set in place by traditional theatre that little bit more. It will undoubtedly leave you gasping for air in this inexhaustible, man made world, dissimilar to our own and yet teeming with uncertainties and questions that are maybe best left unanswered.
‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ runs until the 30th December at Temple Studios, London