A few weekends ago, my brother surprised me with a trip to London and two tickets to a mysterious event, which turned out to be entry to a ‘theatrical adventure’ called The Drowned Man.
Set in an abandoned former post office building in Paddington, the doors are opened a few minutes before the show and, with no ceremony, people are ushered through a door into a darkened corridor, which is an early taste of what is to follow. With lights dimmed to the point of near total darkness, a black-clad member of staff hands out grey masks to all attendees whilst a rumbling recording requests that these masks are worn at all times and that there is no talking – before recommending that people leave their friends and loved ones behind in order to take full advantage of the experience ahead.
A costumed actor, set somewhere between 50s Hollywood starlet and burlesque performer, then appears and starts to usher a group of twenty five or so of us into a lift, where she begins to reel off a vague introduction to a wider narrative, before half the group is invited to leave one floor and the remainder held back to be let out at another.
Our group was let out into a set made up as the immediate outskirts of a 1950s film studio, Temple Studios, with the warning that ‘unsavoury characters roam nearby’. The lights remain down and all of a sudden, the brooding, heavy-set sound track begins to make its presence felt, adding to the bubbling sense of atmosphere.
Characters start to appear from around various sections of the set and the crowd starts to fragment, moving in different directions, some following specific characters and others opening doors and exploring parts of the set. At this point, I simply had no idea what was going on.
Over the course of the next three hours I took turns in following specific cast members and moving between the five floors of the building to explore the set – which ranged from nuclear waste lands, to human sacrificial settings, along with trailer parks, a church, a bar.
Apparently, each of the 25 characters has a narrative arc – a loop – which interweaves with the arcs of others to create the plot. The point of the show is that the standpoint of each attendee will deliver an unique experience within the context of several interlocking stories. I saw one plot twice in the time (from two vantage points), whereas my brother saw several murder scenes, a clown who seemed to have little to do with any narrative and an orgy, none of which I managed.
Around two hours in, doors opened on one floor to a bar, and we were then invited to take masks off if we wished to – although some of the characters remained. By a miracle, the two of us both arrived there within minutes of each other, had a quick drink and tried to figure out what was going on.
After half an hour, we wandered back out to see if it was possible to cover some of the loops that had been missed but fairly quickly, some cast members grabbed people from the audience by the hand and led them and us to a central point, to witness a murder scene, before seeing the cast all come together on a wide stage to perform a dance that could have come from Stomp, and finally, various key characters rounded out their respective story-arcs at opposing ends of the stage.
Overall, I would say that The Drowned Man was an extraordinary, unforgettable experience. At the time, it was deeply frustrating – and although I’ve read up on it considerably since attending and now know a little more – I would say that the lack of clear narrative makes it extremely difficult for the audience to engage . However, the pure and raw theatrical experience of being a voyeur to the point of participation – I was pushed, pulled and grabbed on various occasions by the performers – allows the show to transcend the need for audience understanding and, I imagine, is the reason why so many of the audience turn up again and again to eke out more from the experience whilst also developing a feeling of clarity.
Clearly it’s not for everyone. Rather than horrific, the show is laden with menace – a memorable moment for me was standing amidst a row of scarecrow figurines whilst watching some sort of witchdoctor perform a rite, only to turn and find one of the scarecrows standing and walking – but, the feeling of potential terror is omnipresent.
Of the many reviews, this is my favourite. The Guardian, Telegraph and Metro all make similar points, but interestingly, despite the similarity of perspective, the Guardian gives it 3/5 whilst the Telegraph is 5/5 (Metro splits the difference), which serves how challenging it is to judge something so abstract.
My enduring memory is that it was an experience akin to walking around a contemporary ‘sandbox’ video game, such as Rage, where you can interact with the props and characters rather than simply walk a predefined path. Personally I don’t think I’d be heading back to see this one again, even if I could get a ticket (it’s now sold out until the end of the London run) – but I’ll definitely be in line to see what Punchdrunk does next.