Thursday, 18 July 2013


Only tangentially related to art but seeing reviews all over the place has made me want to jump up and down going WE SAW IT FIRST!

And we did, at preview, luckily before the heatwave started because it was HOT LIKE A SAUNA in there on a rainy cold night, so it's beyond imagining what it will be like when it's 30 degrees outside.

Punchdrunk are the maestros of Immersive/Promenade theatre (from what little I know - immersive, you find yourself inside the theatre production as an audience member, promenade - you walk around a set or a venue, rather than the traditional theatre set up of stage/fourth wall/audience seated in the auditorium watching the action in front of them.)

I've managed to miss all their famous productions like the Masque of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Centre as they sell out very quickly.  So we were pleased to nab preview tickets early on for their collaboration with the National Theatre,The Drowned Man, a production loosely based on B├╝chner's Woyzeck.

This is an unfinished play by a young playwright, so nobody knows the right order, that hasn't stopped a million adaptations being made. It is a kind of mashup of Woyzeck with Day of the Locust , which traumatized me for life when I caught the end  scene on TV as a kid, and any David Lynch you care to mention. For me it strongly reminded me of Mulholland Drive (the glamorous surface and the dark side of Hollywood, and using that as a metaphor to see how stories are constructed).

It is set on an imaginary movie lot set in some indeterminate period, maybe 40s to 60s? The tale of a jealous lover who kills his partner is the loose structure on which the story hangs but being set around this film studio, you can't tell if you are watching the story, or actors filming the story, which makes it baffling and hard to tell which is 'reality' and which is part of the film, in keeping with their multilayered way of working.

One of the pleasures of Punchdrunk is going into it without knowing anything, feeling on edge and uncomfortable and a bit spooked - that ghost train, funhouse feeling, so most reviews tend to be cagey and not want to give too much away.

 I will say that you are lead through long narrow, pitchblack, cramped corridors (claustrophobics, this bit doesn't last too long) and down into an industrial lift, where you are fitted with a mask - this is ingenious as it instantly turns the 600 audience members into a kind of Greek chorus to the actors. Then they let you loose on the set, to explore at will.

 And this for me was the most magical part, and what most reviews tend to praise, even if people were ambivalent about the rest. Because the level of detail of the set, on five floors of this massive ex post office building next to Paddington station, is out of this world. Or rather they have created an entire world. Forests, trailer parks, motel rooms... diners, bars, sleazy movie theatres... sound stages, props and special effects studios, doctor's waiting rooms, masonic clubs, deserts, stars' dressing rooms, bedrooms, backwoods churches... it is like stepping through the silver screen, like entering the film and being able to wander around inside it, picking up props and costumes and examining the life onscreen.

You can wander into a caravan on the movie set and pick up a pile of letters and postcards, leaf through a journal,touch the clothes hanging in the wardrobe. These all pertain in some way to clues in the story (as I was leaving one of the caravans, I notice scrawled signs pasted up all around the doorway "Don't Close Your Eyes!") If there is a jewellery box, you can open it and discover a clue. Open the fridge, pick up the phone. Tamper with stuff. (Apparently the audience also help themselves and they spend a fortune replacing things every night.)  But the depth of detail is a pleasure all by itself, even if you don't use it to piece the action together.

There is a Punchdrunk production of MacBeth still running in New York, which has been running for a year already. Apparently people get obsessive and go back all the time, get into heated debates on the blogs and message boards, stalk their favourite actors. I don't know if I fell in love with the production that much, espcially as it is expensive, but I did fall in love with the set. I'd like to go back and rifle some more, find myself inside the silver screen once again.  That level of work and passion for creative detail deserves some serious appreciation.

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