Punchdrunk \'Drowned Man\'

The Drowned Man
This week I finally got to see Punchdrunk\’s latest offering \”The Drowned Man\” even typing that I wonder is \’see\’ the right word? Probably not. Experienced perhaps? Lived? Survived even? It\’s not anything you do as passively as \’see\’ there is nothing passive about it, as three hours of running up and down stairs will attest.
I have wanted to see a Punchdrunk show for some time. But it\’s difficult, it\’s not everyone\’s cup of tea and i rarely get to London alone. Plus, I\’ll tell you my deep dark secret now it\’s done: I was scared. Genuinely scared.
I\’m what I think is commonly known as a wuss. A wuss with a hated bordering on fear of audience interaction. Scratch that I\’m terrified of audience interaction directed at me, I just hate it with everyone else.
When I say scared I mean really scared. I don\’t do haunted houses, I don\’t even do Disneyland because people in costumes scare me (yes I do know it\’s weird) I\’m not good in confined spaces, I\’ll admit I\’m easily spooked in the dark. I\’m just easily spooked. Like I say, wuss.
So why did I want to go so badly? Curiosity sure, the idea this was a major player in contemporary theatre I was currently missing out on. I also have a twitter friend who is utterly passionate about the show. They have excellent taste so I figured I had to find out for myself.
All this silly wussiness did manifest as genuine anxiety as the week drew in. I was helped by reading accounts of the show online, and by said twitter friend above who gave me some guidance (and valuable toilet info). I wasn\’t helped by the overly enthusiastic fan in the queue who regaled me and my new found queue friend with tales of experiences so intense she had to come out and sit down alone for a while and other such delights. Queue man (who was handsome, and had a very nice beard by the way) and I exchanged tentative glances, what had we let ourselves in for?
As the moment approached I\’ll admit genuine fear took over. Only telling myself I had paid for this, and people would see if I ran away kept me in the queue for the lift. I calmed a bit as I encountered my first actor in the lift. She was a person, she wasn\’t that scary (actually her make up was a bit scary) then I panicked, I failed to \’escape\’ the lift at the first point. Was that a good thing! Bad thing? Stepping out into the darkness I stuck close to my group until we came across some actors.
The first scene I happened to see was familiar, I\’d seen it in promotional material for the show. Quickly I was sucked in by the powerful dance performance in front of me. The scene ended, I followed one of the actors a short distance, another scene began. Another breathtaking dance scene. A lover of physical theatre, and of dance to be up close to the actors for this kind of performance was mesmerising. I was quickly sucked in. Again I followed a character. I watched scenes unfold in close quarters- I\’m keeping specifics vague for those wishing to avoid spoilers. I followed 3 interconnected stories for a while actors the \’loops\’ as they are known. As I was flitting a bit between three characters whose stories were closely entwined (because of course they are all entwined) I got an overall picture.
Following the characters began to build my confidence. I followed one to the eerie sand filled floor above, I grew braver in getting closer to the action. Having completed a loop with one set, in the town half of the story, I began to seek out another, in the studio part. Following a few characters I ventured into new spaces, but nerves and wariness, and perhaps weariness got the better of me. For a time I wandered I near empty spaces I\’d already been in, taking in the detail, enjoying the chance to wander in the set.
This chance to wander without the actors or action close by was a real highlight for me. Many I know like to seek out the obscure characters in these quieter moments or parts away from the main action. For me the chance to wander in the world alone was actually better. The quiet solitude of wandering dream like through this world was so magical.
Eventually I found my way to the Studio 3 space which is an\’ in character bar\’. Here audience members are permitted to take off their masks and talk to one another. A band and singers entertain while some characters drop in and out. For me, and many others I think it provides a chance to regroup, rest a moment before diving back in.
For the second half of my visit I immersed myself in the other part of The Drowned Man World, the studio. For a time I didn\’t bother following a particular character just explored the spaces I came across, observed what was going on, followed someone for a short time. Eventually I did settle on a character who saw me through to the end and the grand finale. For the finale they manage (and lord only knows how!) to get the audience in one space. It is a spectacularly executed finale that also brings the audience together as an \’audience\’ for really the first and only time.
So that\’s what I did (spoiler free) but what did I think? More importantly what did I feel? Part of me still doesn\’t know. But I also can\’t stop thinking about it. Not the plot, which I got in minimal form, but wasn\’t that bothered about anyway because that doesn\’t strike me as the point. The point really is the experience of it. What did I experience? I can\’t help feeling not enough.
Partly this is my a fore mentioned wussiness I was never going to be crawling into dark spaces or opening doors alone, and in a Punchdrunk show this is my failing not theirs. Maybe on a return visit, now I feel I know it a bit more, maybe, just maybe this coward would open a few doors. But I think even with the bravest intentions it takes more than one visit to really experience it. It\’s so overwhelming and sensory and experience that in one visit you can\’t wrap your head around it. On a return visit I\’d have, not so much a plan, but an awareness. I\’d also have taken in the bigger picture so be inclined to look at the smaller stuff.
At first I was a bit perturbed by this, the idea of a show so big you can\’t possibly take it in all at once. How dare a company presume people would want or even could do that. I realise though, you don\’t have to. It\’s actually me. Many people will go, have the experience take it for what it was, whatever it was for them, and go away. Maybe tell their friends, maybe bring someone else to see it. The reason I feel, not unfulfilled, per se, more that there\’s so much more to get, to see and experience that I didn\’t get to see, is because that is my disposition. And it\’s a disposition that Punchdrunk feeds. There are countless plays I\’ve seen well countless times. I\’ve never felt the need to justify seeing them again because to me it\’s self evident, every time you get something different. The difference begin in the case of The  Drowned Man is that they tell you, they show you that there\’s so much more to see. They feed the addiction before you even begin. 
And the other key difference is it\’s visceral, or perhaps somewhat primal. I\’ve had what I\’ve described as visceral theatrical experiences before  sitting on my arse in a darkened room. It stands to reason that physically following, touching the story will only enhance that for the kind of person who connects to performance. I do think that\’s a caveat of these experiences, you need that kind of disposition to totally connect. The kind that is won over or indeed freely given over to the experience. Is it a little bit pretentious as some critics have claimed? Yes, but nowhere near as much as some far far lesser works but far lesser companies. I feel Punchdrunk have earned a little prevention by now! and anyway nobody died from a little pretentious art. And it\’s not really as bad as people make out. I found it actually so honest in its emotions, in the actors connection with the audience that actually the overarching idea, might be pretentious, the delivery isn\’t. Or is that all I their master plan? Is it part of the illusion, the game we are all playing in visiting Temple Studios?

As I type that last sentence I realise it\’s game over for me, I\’ve given in. I\’ve started thinking about it like a fans unpicking it,trying to identify the messages, the meanings. I want to dive into that world. It still scares me, but I think I\’m ready for it this time. 

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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