I thought long and hard how to start this review. Or even whether I should write it. Because Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man plays a trick on you. If it’s performance, where is it? If it’s a walk among someone’s life, random, rambling, often boring, why should I review it?
Admittedly, it’s a gorgeously lit, gorgeously designed walk: motels, boudoirs, bedrooms, forests, trailer parks, sand dunes, diners. People were walking around trying to latch onto the details, find meaning on the minutiae. If there was a story, I didn’t find it. Without the story, the action was falling apart: if I am honest, most of the performed action was banal.
There were interesting elements of passages that would only open if you were there at the right time, like a portal in His Dark Materials. The movement of the audience was fascinating, chasing around what little action there was, converging and dispersing. A small dressing room with one person watched over by a dozen people in white donald duck masks was surreal.
Despite the immersive approach – and the audience being hugely important visually, this is the least interactive production I have ever seen. It’s shocking that the audience is so close and yet so absent. An invisible barrier was between the performers and us, much more so than in conventional theatre. This was no (fourth) wall, this was a fortress.
Walking around gave me time to think: What would happen if we were locked in and we started eating each other for survival? If I pick up this prop phone, will I be able to make a call out? Here is the guy with the Beatles t-shirt we came across earlier.
I saw it yesterday and today I have the strange compulsion to go again, maybe in a few months. This is surprising to me, as I definitely didn’t have such thoughts yesterday. Maybe it’s a victory of sorts for the production, maybe it’s the feeling I missed something. Of one thing I am certain: the scale of anticipation works against the production. Punchdrunk might be too big for the type of show they want to produce. Time will tell.
Back in March, I wrote a post about the pricing system with this production. Those objections still stand, and they are not irrelevant to the audience’s experience.
P.S. The production is based on Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, a story steeped in the tragedy of its characters and the playwright’s fate. Anyone staging a production of this play, I am there.
You can read revstan’s thoughts on the production here.
Update 28/6/2013: It’s been a week since I went to see (experience?) The Drowned Man. The core part of my review still stands, but the aftertaste is coloured by the discussion that, in many ways, has been more fascinating than the production itself. The comments below show a level of engagement that took me by surprise. And other reviews posted online represent a wide range of reactions. As well as revstan’s review linked above you can read:
John Wyver – Illuminations for the references
The West End Whingers for the tips
Ian (Oughttobeclowns) for level headedness
Rashbre for enthusiasm
Update 14/7/2013: With such a fascinating response to the production, I was compelled to write another post: Another look at the Drowned Man, five things I learned about Punchdrunk (and a few questions)