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.