Review: The Drowned Man, by Punchdrunk


punchdrunk - Credit: Archant

The door to the lift opens, and, with a mask partly obscuring your vision, you stumble out into the darkened main street of an American diner town in 1962. Actors are performing a silent scene in front of you that makes no immediate sense. Everywhere you look there are shops and houses which you can enter – each replicated in breathtakingly minute detail.

Welcome to Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man. This is a massive, immersive theatre experience, which takes place over five floors of an old warehouse building in Paddington.

You’re encouraged to explore, and break away from the group. I did, and entered the world of Temple Studios, a huge Hollywood film studio, which is like the counterpoint to the one-horse town outside its gates.

The membrane of these two realities is crossed, and recrossed, and you begin to see a fragmented story of infidelity unfolding, mirrored in two separate relationships. You began to see the connection to Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, on which this is loosely based.

There’s no set order to watch things in, and we are left feeling like we have ourselves gone mad – we see echos of previous events, words scrawled on parchments – everywhere a sense of ominous unreality mixed with celluloid glitz, a kind of retro witchcraft (‘kitchcraft’?).

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Have no doubt, this is a spectacular achievement, but it won’t satisfy everyone. It may leave you feeling confused, and a little frustrated at not having ‘got it’. You’ll frequently loose your way in the enormous space and I don’t think it’s physically possible to see all the parts of the story.

But with 40 minutes to go, a sudden urgency took hold as I knew what was going to happen. I retraced my steps, revisiting the parts of the story I’d missed; as the climax approached, I felt utterly compelled to bear witness, and joined my fellow audience members in sprinting after the actors as they transitioned along the darkened corridors.

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If indeed this was the desired intention – to replicate in the mind of a sane person, the experience of recalling a traumatic sequence of events, in fractured snippets, that gradually culminate in the memory of a terrible act – long repressed by the conscious mind – well, the Drowned Man is a work of genius, plain and simple. If not, it’s still a thrilling, very memorable night out.

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