Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man – Fortune Favours the Bold

A drop dead gorgeous actress in a sequined dress is sensuously running her fingers through my hair like in a Lynx commercial.

“I love this look sweetie, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to cut it shorter if you want to be in our next picture,” she smiles.

Blushing, I ask what her part in the next film will be.

Her movie-star laugh echoes across the bar.

“Don’t be ridiculous dear! I don’t act any more! I’m an executive. Let me know when you’re looking for work,” she says as she slinks off.

Punchdrunk’s style is that audiences have to roll with it. You can’t turn up expecting a traditional evening of sit-down entertainment.

Instead you are given a mask to wear and expected to explore the labyrinthine, multi-story sets and interact with actors and other audience members.

The only rules are that  talking is forbidden, and masks stay on (except for in the bar).

There’s no official start time, and actors randomly appear to draw audiences into different parts of the warehouse.

The company that cut its teeth in East London with its brand of “experiential theatre” has made a name for itself across the Atlantic too, where its quirky, experimental take on Macbeth, “Sleep No More” is still drawing in the New York crowds.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable bases its story on Büchner’s Woyzeck, the story of a deranged soldier who is overcome by murderous jealousy.

It takes place in Temple Pictures, a warehouse next to Paddington that has been transformed into a walkthrough Hollywood set.

The attention to detail of the world they have created is seriously impressive.

There’s an air of cultivated menace, with areas ranging from deserts, forests and cavernous, dark dressing rooms with hazy lighting and smoke machines.

An edgy soundtrack surges and ebbs, making you feel as if you are never far from discovering the body of a murdered stage hand.

The actors waltz in and out of view, sometimes interacting with audience members. They’re dancers, beautiful in a way which fits in well with the sleazy air of Hollywood’s underworld.

Punchdrunk’s philosophy is that fortune favours the bold. People who explore, who step out of their comfort zones, get more value from the experience.

One of the creepy vignettes I saw was of a man who looked like a private eye leading a girl into a motel room, followed by a crowd.

I ran in after them. He gently sat her down on a bed along with his suitcase, and then pushed the rest of us out of the room, locking the door and drawing the curtains.

I waited outside for a minute with a few other curious (and slightly concerned) spectators, then when we opened the door they had both disappeared.

Wordless interaction is very powerful in Punchdrunk’s world. I remember unconsciously sticking with other audience members when things got weird or scary on more than one occasion.

The masks also add an interesting dimension, removing some of the inhibition that audience members might ordinarily feel towards complete strangers.

Some people I spoke to in the bar tutted about how the Drowned Man didn’t compare to their previous shows, and that the fractured narrative made no sense.

But I still managed to lose three hours without even looking at my watch once.

The cut and paste plot merely made me want to go back and catch the parts I’d missed, like a video editor in search of the perfect take.

The Drowned Man is theatre at its most cinematic and game-like: a beautiful world where you choose your own adventure and get extra points for exploring and unlocking bonus features.

The Drowned Man is on till December 2013. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

words Oliver Rahman

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