The Drowned Man: “This Will Keep You Safe”

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My very first post for this blog was about my visit to see the “trailer” for the new(ish) show from immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, which found me stumbling down into a dark Dalston cellar and having a somewhat mystical and almost completely mystifying experience.

So it seems only right to report back now I’ve seen the full version of The Drowned Man, once as the guest of Punchdrunk and once having gladly paid for the privilege. And, even though I’ve now seen it twice, I have to admit that I’m still mystified in some ways, but so impressed and intrigued that not only have I booked to go again next month, but have also bought my parents tickets as their Christmas present (please don’t tell them!).

There are so many aspects of this amazing theatrical experience, very loosely based on Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, that I could write about. The trailer’s careful creation of an atmospheric environment and intriguing characters has been amplified on a massive scale. The production consists of four floors of intricately bedecked, and occasionally startlingly empty, spaces through which actors roam, who you can follow, or not, as your whims dictate, to create your own narrative. Moments from my two visits that have stayed with me: witnessing the murder of a red-sequinned woman; stumbling on an almost entirely empty cinema; following a witch in the desert.

These were all powerful experiences, but what I want to focus on is what the show is saying about power itself. The Drowned Man is designed so that everyone who sees it has a different story to tell afterwards, but I think its message about power is ultimately the same for everyone, and its lessons apply everywhere, not just in London. That includes America – Punchdrunk is knowingly transatlantic; its hugely popular version of “the Scottish play” Macbeth reimagined as a Hitchcock-esque drama is going great guns in a Manhattan warehouse. Meanwhile The Drowned Man is currently playing in London, but has an American context, being set in 1960s Hollywood and engaging with that most quintessentially American of artistic forms – cinema, and its production of visions ostensibly for the purposes of entertainment but always with political implications.

So what are these universal lessons about power? Well, I think that however you experience the play, and there are many ways to do so, you become engaged in a process of hiding and finding, of being lost and of revelation. This operates constantly through the individual experiences you might have at The Drowned Man. For instance, at one point I found myself wandering into a forest of someone’s starched shirts at the back of a shop that went on and on, eventually into a totally different space. At another point, I spent a good twenty minutes locked in a diner phone booth which, I think, contained a secret way out that, despite a bit of bashing, I was unable to open.

This process is also encoded in the overall structure of The Drowned Man (and other Punchdrunk works). “Audience” members are not guided as they are in seated and even in conventional promenade shows, but are given the chance to make their own choices and to be lost. We’re given masks, which both take way our identities, but also liberate us. Go missing and you could find something special, or just miss out.

These themes are even found in the four-floor structure of the mammoth set. “The show goes vertically down as well as horizontally,” said director Felix Barrett at the beginning of the show’s run. “You can follow the story of our Woyzeck and it will be a great night out or you can go vertically down, lift away the topsoil and get to the other, hidden narrative underneath.” The show’s middle two floors host the main characters and the central pieces of action, or at least those that initially appear most closely linked to Woyzeck, while in the basement and on the top floor you’re liable to encounter secret societies, magic, religion, cold baths, line dancing and all manner of other marginal and mystical activities.

So I think part of what Barrett means is that these two floors function as a kind of unconscious or dreamscape for the show’s main plots, where meaning becomes crystallised, but also more unfathomable. The four-floor structure therefore makes physical the simultaneous revelation and concealment of higher – or should that be lower or deeper? – knowledge that all art purports to enact. And that’s very physical, I’d add – to get the most out the show’s huge space, be prepared to do an awful lot of pushing at heavy doors and scrambling up and down stairs, and to be shaking sand and glitter out of your shoes the next morning.

Now I have a confession to make. I am a member of a secret society. I’m not at liberty to say any more, but when I walk through the world of The Drowned Man, I do so as someone marked, as someone in possession of understandings that will keep me safe from the very real terrors that lurk there, just as they do in what we think of as “real life”.

That’s annoying, isn’t it. What am I talking about exactly? I’m not going to say anything other than what you just had is the kind of experience the piece gives you on a massive scale. You realise that in this life some people have power and some don’t, and this difference is codified by rituals of knowledge. Either you don’t have knowledge and you want it, or you have it and conceal it from other people, and most of us are engaged in both processes. Whatever you stumble on at The Drowned Man (and, believe me, there’s no shortage of things to trip over, metaphorically and literally) you’re going to come out feeling that you’ve learnt some secrets, but that there are plenty you don’t know, making you conscious of a power structure you slowly realise you’re embedded in, outside the play’s universe as well as inside it.

And as I’ve been reflecting on my experience of The Drowned Man, I’ve realised that there are connections with what I know about New Orleans. The trappings of the play set off echoes for me – we were officially in California, but the masks and voodoo altars took me east to Louisiana, and in the bar at the centre of the set they were even playing James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s carnival classic “Jock-A-Mo” at one point, which I thought perfectly matched the mood of decadence laced with power plays that I think Punchdrunk is trying to evoke.

At a deeper level, The Drowned Man’s lessons about power are as evident in New Orleans as anywhere else. Mardi Gras is surely a perfect example of how art represents the simultaneous showing and hiding of potent secrets, and how something that appears to be about entertainment can also have deadly serious political import.

In conclusion, it’s hard to really explain what The Drowned Man is all about as, like Mardi Gras and all art to a certain extent, your own individual response to it is what makes it work and become comprehensible. But there are still plenty of tickets left and I’d highly recommend you get your hands on one. Just be warned, the more you see of this show, the more you’re left wanting – it’s a very effective trailer for itself and its own processes of generating significance. That means on a practical level that, with tickets at up to £85 a pop, you’re liable to find yourself a bit out of pocket come December when its run ends. But on the plus side, I’d argue that the show, in the sense that it deepens your understanding of the power structures around you, is really a fantastic trailer for life outside its confines, and in this sense can’t fail to leave you richer than you were before you saw it.

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Carnival!

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Last weekend I went to carnival. No, not Mardi Gras – here in London, that’s the day we go round to each other’s houses and see just how many pancakes we can eat at one sitting. And that’s thin plate-sized ones that we fold into triangles and eat with lemon and sugar – you won’t see many American-style stacks drizzled with maple syrup on Pancake Day, though we love those too, just at other times of year.

Which brings me back to carnival in London. Here the last weekend fully in August is the one for dancing in the street – and it’s a long one for most people as the Monday is always a public holiday. On this weekend, Notting Hill Carnival happens. It’s impossible to sum up in a few words, but we’re talking narrow streets full to bursting, steel bands on lorries and sound systems on street corners, beautiful people in feathered outfits of every colour, jerk chicken and curried goat (not really goat, by the way), Red Stripe beer and bottles of rum, whistles and garlands, and hundreds of thousands of people enjoying themselves in the sunshine, which always seems to magically appear over London just in time.

This festival, now the biggest street party in Europe, grew out of various events organised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of the main intentions of the early organisers of these events was to find a way for London’s African-Caribbean community to showcase their culture and history as a response to some race-related tensions of the time. Its evolution over the following five decades is closely interwoven with that of race relations in London – the festival has seen clashes between revellers and police and some violence on occasion, but these days the overwhelmingly dominant flavour of the event is celebration of London’s African-Caribbean communities and heritage, and of London’s diversity in general.

But that’s not to say that the festival doesn’t still highlight social tensions, such as those caused by the fact that Notting Hill has changed hugely since the 1960s. Back then, many of the area’s rows of big Victorian terraced houses, usually split up into many small flats, were home to working class tenants, many black, enduring some of the worst housing conditions in the country. Now they’re the homes of millionaires – in recent decades the area’s undergone a gentrification process something like that of the Marigny district in New Orleans. And, judging from the locked gates and boarded-up windows I see every year, many of these millionaires leave the area when carnivals’s on. In 2011, the year of the most recent major London riots, I even saw security guards patrolling outside some of them.

And it’s not just some of the residents of Notting Hill who have an ambivalent attitude towards the festival. I know plenty of Londoners who love it just as much as I do, but also some who see it as a stayaway event, if only because they’re afraid they won’t be able to find a toilet when they need one, admittedly always a bit of a problem (solution: do some advance scouting, get over paying £3 to use a bucket behind a curtain in someone’s garage, and drink rum not beer if you can).

This somewhat anxious attitude towards carnival is mirrored to a certain extent by authorities in London  In the years I’ve being going, I’ve certainly noticed that police presence and crowd control has become heavier. And in 2004, then mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s Carnival Review Group suggested that the festival should be moved in part to Hyde Park as a way of avoiding overcrowding issues.

But for me, the way in which the Notting Hill Carnival occupies and flows around a tight grid of west London streets – including everything from council estates to rows of pastel-coloured palaces to strips of boutiques to corner shops – is a key part of its meaning and its appeal, and I wouldn’t have this, or pretty much any other aspect of it, any other way. I’ve had many different experiences of carnival over the years I’ve been going, all of them wonderful.

Moving from sound system to sound system down a tree-lined road, drinking Red Stripe, and ending up at my friend’s cousin’s Brazilian restaurant, which meant a bonus queue-free toilet stop. Sitting in a pub, watching and hearing the floats go past and eating red velvet cupcakes. Wandering by myself in 2011, noticing the extra police around and trying to decide if things had changed. Dancing outside, watching tens of people try to climb onto a garden wall which had become an impromptu podium. And this year, taking photos of parades and swigging run from the bottle. Carnival is different every year, and you have to go with your instincts – to quote what brass band Rebirth say of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the title of their classic carnival song: you’ve got to “do watcha wanna”.

This year, we went in from the west rather than from the east, meaning we saw a different side to the event. We went past fewer big white houses with columns outside and more social housing, including the listed but much-maligned 1970s Brutalist block Trellick Tower. There seemed to be more parades here, and we followed them in earnest for the first time, picking up goodies left in their wake, like a flag and a vuvuzula, and ending up at the square around Trellick Tower, which seemed to be a popular point for the floats and dancers to pause for a while and crank things up a notch.

Watching the parades closely helped me pick up on some of the links between Notting Hill Carnival and the African-Caribbean community in Hackney in east London, where I live. I noticed a carnival troupe based out of Visions Video Bar in Dalston. And I later discoverd that black political activist Claudia Jones, who I know of mainly because of the community organisation named after her based on Hackney’s Stoke Newington Road, was involved in the founding of the festivals, organising a music and dance celebration in 1958 for London’s black community in response to the race riots of that year in the streets where the carnival now takes place.

There was also a bit of New Orleans in evidence. One of the biggest and loudest carnival floats I spotted, followed by plenty of costumed dancers and other revellers, was called “Lagniappe Mas”, after the Louisiana term for “a little bit extra”. And of course, there was plenty of New Orleans below the surface – carnival in New Orleans, just like in London, stems to a significant extent from the traditions of a large Caribbean diaspora population.

So I feel justified in ending with a New Orleans phrase: “Laissez les bon temps rouler” for Notting Hill Carnival. I’ll also add a final word from Trinidadian and Londoner Claudia Jones: here is the motto used for the events she organised that arguably got carnival started in London, but which could stand in defence of street festivals everywhere: “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”