Last month I went to Punchdrunk’s production of The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.
I hadn’t really read up about the show beyond hearing whispers of ‘immersive’ and ‘experimental’ theatre. That, together with the fact I’m not a massive theatre-goer, meant I went in pretty much blind. And I’m glad to say this was the best possible way to do it.
From the very beginning until the bitter end, The Drowned Man challenged my expectations of live theatre.
Whilst queueing to enter the set, we found ourselves behind a couple who were actually drunk. I think they were still carrying cans of beer. This would make sense to me at a gig. Possibly even the cinema – particularly if the film starred Nicolas Cage. But in my mind, one doesn’t predrink heavily to watch a play. It was the first indication that this was a new beast entirely.
Turning the bend, we then saw a bar stationed mid-queue offering cocktail shots. It made me think that maybe the theme here was ‘drowning’ in alcohol.
Entrance to the set was staggered, so we walked in alone. After making it through a twisting corridor in almost complete darkness, which was thoroughly disorienting, we eventually made it to what I can only describe as a holding pen. There we received masks (very much channelling the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut) and were told to wait. The droning music had already kicked in and the atmosphere was ratcheting up fast.
And then we were released.
At first it was a bit overwhelming: we had the keen sense that things were going on throughout the massive warehouse complex but it was unclear how to access them. FOMO began taking hold.
It was only once we focussed on following an individual actor did the whole thing start to feel more manageable, or at least manageable enough. Following a man into a small room with a desk covered in photos of starlets, we watched as he picked up a phone and froze. The congregated group slowly dispersed, drawn by the promise of greater activity elsewhere.
Just as we were about to leave, he started speaking. The fact he waited for a smaller and more intimate crowd before continuing gives you a clear idea of Punchdrunk’s approach to the immersive format: avoid overcrowding and make the experience personal.
And so it continued – jumping from one actor to another, picking up bits and pieces of the plot as we went. To be honest, I became less concerned about following a coherent plot and more interested in the mood and character interactions. I feel that trying to follow everything would have really detracted from the experience.
As we walked around, two points of cultural reference were driven firmly into my mind (notwithstanding orgies involving Tom Cruise). The first was every David Lynch production ever made, in particular Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The long, awkward silences. The ceaseless, low-frequency music. The yesteryear Hollywood setting. I half-expected Laura Dern to suddenly appear.
The second were the games Bioshock and Bioshock II. The magnificent lighting and stage design at times reminded me of wandering through the corridors of Rapture, while the masks and costumes made me think of the Splicers.
Both references reflect the intensely disturbing atmosphere of The Drowned Man. As we neared the end of the production and were brought together with other punters, set pieces took place involving a creepy dance, staged orgy, insane clown, murder and other general debauchery.
No doubt this setup – a combination of unsettling themes, unpredictability and near darkness – contributed to the need for alcohol we witnessed way back at the beginning whilst queuing. I wouldn’t blame anyone for needing a little Dutch courage!
Fortunately, feeling ill at ease was offset by the consistent intrigue and excitement – provided in large part by the voyeuristic element of the night. Wearing a mask genuinely made me feel like a fly on the wall, free to roam without regard for others’ privacy. It was very liberating; by the end I felt almost drunk with the power of this position.
It was such an impactful experience, we’re thinking of going again. Knowing what I do now, I’ll probably spend more time alone and make more of an effort to interact with the environment and actors – fitting for a setting and story full of risk. Taking a cue from others, I might even get a bit drunk.
The Drowned Man only runs until May, so be sure to book soon. Details can be found here.