Punchdrunk is back in town. But The Drowned Man comes at a (steep) price

The Drowned Man - A Hollywood Fable. A Punchdrunk production. Photo by creativeXs

The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable. A Punchdrunk production. Photo by creativeXs

Last week, a wave of excitement shivered among theatre junkies. A cryptic email by the National Theatre, and snippets of information ingenuously gathered by the most inventive among us, pointed to a new Punchdrunk production (or rather experience) coming to town. Quickly the rumours were confirmed, the National Theatre website got very busy, and The Drowned Man – A Hollywood Fable became a hot ticket. To top up the excitement, a mini preview show – a bit like a live trailer – played in a secret location in Dalston (not so secret that the Telegraph didn’t get to review it though).

I have to admit  my enthusiasm is somewhat muted. Mainly because the ticket prices don’t feel right. First of all, considering it’s a National Theatre co-production, the tickets are fairly expensive (standard tickets £39 or £47.50 depending on the day, previews a bit cheaper, limited number of concessions at £19.50). The ticketing policy is also unclear and some of the pricing information is  only provided after you start the booking process.But the main source for my dissatisfaction is the presence of premium tickets. Premium seats are nothing new, most theatres have a variety of ticket prices based on the fact that, unless you stage a production in someone’s living room, not all seats are equally  good.

The premium prices for Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man (at a massive £85 a ticket) are somewhat different. Premium tickets – we are told -include an invitation to an additional prologue and access to hidden secrets within The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Which begs the question: who is being cheated? The experience  is conceived and executed with the artist making choices about what to offer. This is their job. At any given time, they strive to make the best choices and give the ideal experience and by the nature of theatre, this can change from performance to performance.

In this case, if you can pay more, you get more. More content, more play, more experience.  Either the premium ticket holders get an overstuffed production or the standard ticket holders get half the play. It’s hard to see how it can be otherwise. At prices beyond most people’s means, expressions like “money grabbing” and “cash cow” don’t feel entirely inappropriate.

P.S. Dalstonist has nice piece of the “secret” (and free) preview somewhere at Kingsland High Street. At this point, this adventure feels more interesting than the main attraction later in the year.

UPDATE 22/06: Yes the production is actually here, this is what I thought about it.

15 responses to “Punchdrunk is back in town. But The Drowned Man comes at a (steep) price

  1. That seems awfully unfair on a Theatre public who have taken Punchdrunk experienes to heart. Your final analysis – overstuffed or half an experience at the set prices – feels very apt. Whose decision one wonders and why?

  2. You have expressed exactly my feelings about this. Excitement as the news came out only to be followed closely by disappointment (and even a sense of betrayal?) at, especially, the ‘premium’ ticket prices. Punchdrunk haven’t been cheap for some time, but at least there was a feeling of democracy in that, once in, the randomness of the ‘special’ experiences (which, as I experienced one of the one-on-ones at Masque of the Red Death WERE indeed special) was potentially open to all. The restriction of these to those with too much cash makes the whole thing, for me, less special anyway, so I feel it may be “bye bye Punchdrunk” from me (not that they’ll need my annual friendship or ticket prices now, with people willing to pay £85…). At the risk of sounding like sour grapes, I feel we may have seen their high-water mark with Masques of the Red Death anyway..

    • I think the relationship between audience and artist, especially in the theatre, isn’t confined in the performance, how we feel about their approach is vitally important and not at all irrelevant. I am not a punchdrunk devotee (I haven’t seen any of their performances) and I am still going, but I am inclined to agree they might have lost their freshness.

  3. You admit you’ve never been to a punchdrunk production yet you you’re questioning their freshness? Well done Doris.

    • Artistic output isn’t restricted to performance. Many people question the prices, and that affects Punchdrunk’s relationship with the audience. Within that context, questioning their freshness is entirely valid. Still, I bought a ticket because I want to go and I want it to be good.

  4. I am concerned about this as well, for the reasons you suggested. I’ve adored seeing Sleep No More in NYC a few times, and I want to get the most out of this experience… but what does that mean, exactly?

    • Now we are close enough to performance, we will see for ourselves. I want to be as open as possible and not take my misgivings with me, and that applies to this production as any other.

  5. I wanted to love the production but in the end I felt cheated. Great props with wonderful detail. Superb setting and amazing potential for a whole new theatre experience. But for me the content was pathetically banal. What was there to engage with? What performance to marvel at? What did I fail to pick up on?

    • As an audience, it’s a strange position to be in: if you liked it, great. If you didn’t like it, it could still be your fault, because you didn’t try hard enough, chase hard enough, be there at the right time. There is an element of it in any theatre production, but here it can be taken to extremes. Thank you for your comment.

    • Poly, I have to laugh at the notion that it’s my fault that it was such a bad experience. And I paid £30 to have it as well. This production was poor and self-indulgent. Punchdrunk did not deliver an event worth going to.

  6. This production was dreadful. Unintelligible and difficult to enjoy. What little action and acting there was, was awful. The actors seemed to be contemporary dancers and yet the dancing was too long, too cliched and frankly boring.

    There was more enjoyment in watching white masked throngs desperately chasing the meek looking actors (charisma was clearly not on the must have list during auditions) in hope of actually seeing something worth watching. Mostly, they were left wanting.

    The whole thing was a tease. Constant promises of something great (I’d settle for interesting) but ultimately nothing came. As my partner said, it’s like the director doesn’t like closure. Not a completer finisher that’s for sure.

    I was bored and filled my time hoping to be told off for not wearing my mask, just so I could participate in some drama.

    many have said the sets were great, well big whoop I didn’t go to admire the sets. I’ve witnessed some poor attempts to break away from traditional theatre but this tops the list. I’ve seen 6th formers do better.

    Must try harder.

    • I do wonder how much of our response is framed by the pricing. The production was pushed as a major event, priced accordingly, and it has to deliver in those terms, not in a vague hesitant way.

    • Poly, I’m glad you raised this. I would have happily paid twice as much and more for a show that gave me a great experience. My response was uniquely driven by my dissatisfaction with the artistic content of what I was offered as an evening’s theatrical entertainment.

      The hype clearly led us to expect a superb new theatrical experience. In earlier posts, I have acknowledged that some of the ingredients were there. But the content was dire: banal ideas and from what I saw rather low standards of performance when performances could be found.

      Punchdrunk’s effrontery in offering so much pretension and so little of artistic merit angered me.

      There were small but annoying extra details. The audience masks were difficult for anybody who wears glasses, When I, as one of those people, was challenged to wear my mask, and explained why I could not, it was clear that nobody had thought about that detail. What about people with mobility difficulties? That’s surely an impossible show for them. Those matters point to a production that didn’t think about or care for its audience.

      Price came into my thinking only later when I realised how well Punchdrunk had done out of me.

    • Approaching a work of art, there are no guarantees, no matter how much money you pay. That’s the beauty of it, And I don’t bring up the ticket prices with an accountant’s mentality: we paid for £30 and we want £30 worth of stuff. But the prices – that are as expensive as the most expensive west end plays with none of the flexibility – create a context. The premium tickets of £85 smack of elitism. That context changes the relationship with the audience.

      I don’t expect this kind of show is cheap. But there are other ways to fund it. The discussion around the production shows a great deal of passion. They could have used crowdfunding and I would happily give £100 with not much in return. And the relationship with the audience would have been stronger than ever.


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