Punchdrunk: Immersive Theatre At Its Best

London's most creative theatre company are back, but does Punchdrunk's latest production live up to their hallowed name?
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London's most creative theatre company are back, but does Punchdrunk's latest production live up to their hallowed name?

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Hello, my name is Paul Madill, and I am not really into the theatre. Musicals especially make my teeth sweat piss, the prancing, yodelling cast endlessly modulating both their tone and my temper. Plays, too, are not exactly one of my main loves in life. I have studied ones I've really liked, and appreciate the subtle nuances of live performance and the emotional engagement between audience and actor; better yet, I absolutely love the baroque swearing of David Mamet, who could write an episode of the Thick of It in an hour that would ensure the BBC was instantly shuttered. Be that as it may, it's just never been high on my list of interests, resting just above ‘bathing the dog’ but absolute Burj Khalifa heights above 'watching the X Factor'.

The one exception for me is Punchdrunk. In keeping with my ignorance, I came fairly late to this innovative group, which has enjoyed much critical acclaim since being formed in 2000 by artistic director Felix Barrett. They engage in something approximating the wankily-named 'promenade theatre', which encompasses site-specific works. In essence, this means the traditional audience-performers-theatre paradigm is broken, with the action taking place all around you in specifically chosen spaces. The 'stage' can be as small as one board or an entire building, through which you tread your own path, trailing the actors as they fling themselves through scenes or going off yourself and exploring.  Essentially, imagine entering a gigantic art installation, through which people occasionally emote, and you're there.

The results can be utterly stunning. The inspired wearing of masks makes the audience feel unselfconscious and invisible, mere wraiths darting about in the gloom. I attended the Masque of Red Death at Battersea in 2007 and found myself totally enthralled as I visited an opium den. I then broke off to trail Dupin, one progenitor of the detective genre, about his Parisian gumshoe business. Later on, I watched a man being immured in a basement, while at the end of my second Punchdrunk show, It Felt Like A Kiss, my fleeing from a chainsaw-wielding madman at speeds more usually attributed to UFOs was one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had.

Its uniqueness means Punchdrunk engenders the type of pathologically unswerving devotion usually only attributed to suicidal, swivel-eyed cultish types holed up in remote parts of the southern US and Liverpool fans. I have adored the few shows I have seen, and actually miss those that would have definitely suited my limited theatrical palate, the company having combined Goethe's Faust with mid-century small-town America in 2006, for instance.

It is with great reluctance then that I report I was a bit underwhelmed by Punchdrunk's latest, The Drowned Man. Subtitled 'A Hollywood Fable', it takes place over a number of floors of the vast ex-Post Office building that looms close by Paddington station. It is based loosely - and I mean a ‘Geordie Shore morals’ level of laxity - on the play Woyzeck, by the German writer Georg Büchner. Woyzeck was left unfinished, Büchner succumbing to typhus in Zurich in 1836, aged just 23. It was still in draft, and hence is fragmentary and ambiguous.

The play is combined here with the seedy razzle dazzle of 1960s Hollywood. To this end, the entire building has been morphed into 'Temple Studios' and its stalked, benighted environs on the evening of a wrap party. Desperate wannabe starlets, venal executives, obsessed fans and crazed hangers-on haunt this hinterland, alongside a whole cavalcade of other sinister, hallucinatory characters.

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Here is a good place to pause for a moment and reflect on what Punchdrunk undeniably does well. First and foremost, the attention to detail in their productions is second to none, and TDM is no different. You range across a cornucopia of sets of all shapes and sizes, including boardrooms, offices, hotel rooms, nightclubs, dressing rooms and studios, all recreated in intrinsic, intense detail. It's not just rooms either, as a fully-functioning cinema and town square - with ominously tinkling fountain and strip motel that reeks of Hitchcockian foreboding - also feature.

The verisimilitude is frankly staggering. The sheets seem grubby and slept in. Open a desk drawer and it is stuffed with books and tissues stained with ink. Ashtrays spill over on to the covers of period magazines. Piles of unread scripts soar and teeter like the Eiger. My girlfriend rummaged through a handbag she found – not something she normally does, honest - to find handwritten to-do lists, used lipsticks, keys and a necklace.

It's not just a visual thing, either. Make your way across the large open wooded area and feel the dirt crunch beneath your feet; head into a medical room and fight off the astringent aroma of disinfectant. It’s astonishing, an assault on the senses and a truly benthic commitment to immersion. This includes the sound, a mixture of bittersweet 60s girl group pop and thrumming, urgent noise when the tension is disquietingly being ratcheted up.

The acting and dancing are, to this admittedly untrained eye, convincing and expressive. There is about as much dialogue here as in a documentary on classic Chaplin for the deaf, but the way the actors stay submerged in the raging motivations of their characters as oddballs like me stand mere feet away, sweating like a 1970s TV personality when the doorbell goes into a plastic mask, never fails to impress.

So, what's wrong with it? Well, for starters, I think the setting itself was too vast. Whereas Masque felt both expansive and yet compellingly claustrophobic, here rooms echoed empty, inert. The nature of Punchdrunk's work is to make your own way, and yet in such yawning chasms it makes the likelihood of coming across any of the pertinent action pretty small.

In addition to this, I'm not sure you can give the audience such autonomy as you get here with a story that is in itself nebulous and recondite. Yes, I understand the theme, in that the lines between reality and illusion are purposely smudged. The issue is that if you don't happen to stumble upon significant scenes it merely seems that all you've witnessed is a series of emotive but disjointed vignettes of seduction, revenge, jealousy and violence. Bubbling up as they do in disconnected dreamlike squalls, trying to piece these disparate scenes together felt like trying to hoard grains of sand in a wind tunnel. It was frustrating, and I felt alienated from any semblance of narrative. This feeling is further heightened by the fact the story runs in parallel, but with the gender roles of adulterer and victim flipped. This means there are two plays, both tough to grasp, running at the same time. I struggled, I'm not ashamed to say.  The finale too, especially when compared to the escapologist sorcery of the end of Masque, didn't satisfy.

And yet, I would definitely urge you to go. I want to go again.

Reviewing is of course subjective, something only accentuated here by the solipsistic nature of TDM. If we sit and watch Pulp Fiction, we've all seen the same thing, and have a base to work from: that's not the case here. In some ways, this mild disappointment is my fault.  Maybe if I had followed that character a little longer, maybe if I had turned the groaning door handle of a different room, a whole ‘nother review would have been written...

The strange thing here is that, while I can't forcefully recommend it on the strength of my evening in West London, I would consider you mad if you weren't intrigued. Go, and find yourself a better story than I did. I’m going to.