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Review of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

The Drowned ManPunchdrunk’s immersive style is the theatre equivalent of what a computer game is to film. Linear stories happen throughout the night which, as a masked audience member, you can follow multiple characters and experience the world of ‘Temple Studios’, but you make your own path, either following one story or moving between characters and rooms creating your own sense of the world you have been brought into.

The Drowned Man is based on Büchner’s unfinished play ‘Woyzeck’ and follows the stories of two parallel couples- William & Mary and Wendy and Marshall and the characters that satellite them both. Housed in what was an old Sorting Office in Paddington, ‘Temple Studios’ is on a gargantuan scale, and you realise very early on that you will never be able to see everything in one night. This is where the audience divides into those who rush around following a single character, those who explore rooms and stumble across scenes as they go along, and those who start hunting for the bar, desperate to take their masks off.

Your experience of this production is as much down to you as a viewer as it is the production itself. Nothing in this show is handed to you on a plate, you are required to have a certain element of bravery, interest and a willingness to try. It’s unlikely that the story will make sense, especially on first viewing- the more times you see it, the more you get to delve into its extreme detail and find out about each of its characters.

This show isn’t for everyone, but I was lucky enough to be in the category of those who left speechless and astounded at the work. I was completely transported into an almost dream-like state where everything is not quite real. Before you enter the main space you are given a mask and instructed not to talk and advised to separate from your friends and make your journey on your own. If you do follow those instructions, I can truly guarantee a far more interesting discussion when you’re reunited at the bar after!

Without giving away too much, Punchdrunk’s ethos is based in a very physical style of performance, there is very little spoken word and what is spoken is highly stylised and prose-like. You have large group dance pieces, duets and solo works; and then, if you’re one of the lucky few of the 600 audience members each night, you get a one-on-one experience with one of the characters. On my second visit, I had one with a character of the Grocer. It’s an almost sensuous experience and requires a lot of trust. They look straight into your eyes, offer you their hand, lead you somewhere and remove your mask and speak to you in more detail about their character’s experience. The performers are very skilled at identifying who has followed their story enough to appreciate more of an additional nugget of story.

The Drowned Man is a whirlwind of emotion, you can’t help but get swept up in it, even if you have no idea what is happening, you can’t deny the beauty of its scale from huge landscapes to an anatomical drawing of a barbel fish on the Doctor’s office wall that links to an anatomical essay that Büchner wrote. This is a production that rewards those who research and those who make return visits.

This is a very special piece of theatre by a company who create arguably the best immersive theatre in the world. There are so many elements to the work it’s difficult to not find something someone will appreciate. From a powerful 30-strong cast of performers, to the hyper-detailed, multi-sensory design work by Livi Vaughan, Beatrice Minns and their team to the directorship of Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle. This production is a logistical nightmare somehow pulled off to create a fascinating world of rabbit holes, dust-witches and cowboys. This is a show for the curious, the more you look, the more you get from this piece, read the letter, sit beside the performer, open the cupboard door…

Review by Isabella Van Braeckel who you can follow on Twitter @issyvb

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable
Presented by Punchdrunk and the National Theatre

“The award-winning Punchdrunk stage their biggest and most ambitious production yet. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is an extraordinary theatrical adventure: a unique personal journey which unfolds across four levels of a vast central London location.”

Thursday 19th September 2013

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