A fairly healthy penchant for all things dark, atmospheric and twisted, meant Punch Drunk’s latest offering is a must-see. For this production, the pioneering, immersive theatre company have transformed a former Royal Mail sorting office into the other-worldly, dream factory that is Temple Studios.
The Drowned Man adapts Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, a disturbing story of exploitation, jealousy and murder against the seedy backdrop of 1960s Hollywood. On entering the show we were given a sort of mini-plot synopsis, which revealed that simply adapting a novel for theatre was not challenging enough for Punch Drunk. They’ve also added a simultaneous narrative, which flips the male and female leads.
Knowing what I did about the nature of their productions, any hopes of following the story seemed to be hanging by a thread before it had begun, but as I came to realise, it really didn’t matter.
The most obvious thing to mention is that every audience member wears a compulsory, creepy white mask which covers the mouth. At first I thought it was simply another way of adding to the unnerving atmosphere, but they serve a much more important purpose.
From the moment I entered the show I was staggered by the attention to detail of the sets. The sheer scale and epic proportion of some of the set pieces is mind-blowing, and yet the tiny touches of personality in every discarded document, book and photo is even more impressive. I was wandering around with expressions see-sawing from mouth-wide amazement, to ear-to-ear grins. The mask hid all of this. It disguised any expression of emotion from every single member of the audience, keeping the tone of the production consistent throughout. We were silent, ghostly voyeurs, peering into a strange and beautiful world.
Now, to say the show owes a lot to David Lynch is putting it incredibly lightly. From subtle nods here and there, to an almost exact replica of the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, his influence is littered throughout. For a fan such as myself, that wasn’t a problem at all and I was thrilled to have the chance to immerse myself in ‘Lynchian’ locations and eavesdrop on the tortured mutterings of the characters.
With regards to following the main plot, I very quickly gave up, deciding instead to follow the story of a young actor named Frankie. A small group of us ‘ghosts’ tracked Frankie on a downward spiral, from initial adoration and promises of stardom courtesy the delightfully unhinged studio directors, through to his eventual breakdown in the face of the shallow, fickle realities of Hollywood.
As Frankie’s story was coming to a close I noticed a suspicious looking doctor peer in through a window, before abruptly disappearing through a set of double doors. The chase was on. Three flights of stairs later and I’d stumbled into an expansive, moonlit woodland area with two full size caravans in it. The roof of one of them played host to a female contortionist, wrapt in some sort of demented spirit dance. I turned back to see the doctor locked in an unsettlingly intimate slow dance with a member of the audience. In the distance the dim glow of lanterns and the clinking glasses and drunk exclamations of a late night party echoed through the woods, beckoning me to explore.
I estimate that I experienced a tiny fraction of what The Drowned Man has to offer and even a number of repeat visits wouldn’t be enough to take it all in. It is really a logistical marvel of epic proportions. Whilst trying to follow the narrative can be hindered at times by the sheer volume of audience members attempting to do the same, it quickly becomes apparent that the most rewarding moments come from breaking away and chasing some of the minor characters around the more deserted areas of the set.
I’ve been furiously recommending this show to everyone and anyone. From fellow Twin Peaks fans to lovers of Coronation Street, The Drowned Man is an addictive oddity that will linger in the back of your mind for weeks, even months later.
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is a Punch Drunk production, now booking until December 20th. Tickets are available from the National Theatre website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable