The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Punchdrunk’s new collaboration with the National Theatre at ‘Temple Studios’ in Paddington is a sometimes bewildering but impressively detailed take on Woyzeck

Laure Bachelot and Omar Gordon
Laure Bachelot and Omar Gordon
© Pari

Immersive, subversive, convulsive, divisive: there’s nothing half-hearted about Punchdrunk’s latest manipulative epic, co-directed by Felix Barrett and choreographer Maxine Doyle. It’s shrouded in mystery and darkness in an abandoned factory next to Paddington station, an almost criminal exercise in alienation set in a 1950s film studio making a noir update of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck – on three vast, spooky levels – and in the surrounding forest and wasteland.

Here’s how weird it is: I watched a climactic scene of murder that appeared to have nothing at all to do with what I’d followed round over the previous three hours. That’s because I got locked into the parallel narrative (though that’s too strong a word) of another abusive relationship, between an actress, her former lover and the new man.

I padded between four caravans as she locked herself in, wrote desperate notes. Later, she was in make-up, having facial wounds applied. So was the “real” world outside the studio not so real after all? There were big empty bar rooms suddenly invaded by rival tough guys in stained and sweaty vests. There was a lonely barmaid.

Then a row of motel rooms. Suddenly, another woman is pinioned against the wall and violently assaulted. The couple goes into one of the bedrooms and – this rather upset me – the group of audience I was with at that point followed them in, like silent and sinister voyeurs.

For an hour I was a bit lost. And fed up. I kept returning to where I’d been before, couldn’t get out, or proceed to another level. Groundhog Day. All six hundred of us are wearing identical white “Phantom” half masks (at least they’ve modified these to make them more tolerable if you wear specs). I was lounging by a red car, a Chevvy I think, when silently moved away by one of the discreet, black-masked ushers, to make room for a violent sex dance on top of it.

I’ve no idea which character was whom, nor did it seem to matter. We are like scavengers at a wake, witnessing snapshots, vignettes, a sudden party, or a private moment in a dressing room. I can’t remember how many offices and abandoned meeting rooms I went into. I interrupted a fellow white face in one room and we each momentarily thought: “Is he or she in this performance, or am I, or have I just gone mad?”

I accidentally found the bar en route to the basement, where you can take off your mask and kick back with a beer and a rather good cabaret singer. I liked the basement best: a tiled vestibule of torture, inquisition and a somewhat alarmingly explicit orgy, with little cavities of sadness round the edges; an actress sealing a letter and climbing on the desk suddenly jumped down and kissed a white masked punter full on the neck; did she know him?

On the top floor, a desert, with a strange chapel populated by dummies, like left-overs from Kantor’s Dead Class (Now, there was a truly great piece of “immersive” theatre). The installations are amazingly compiled and detailed, if you like that sort of thing.

The experience is yours alone, you take from it what you can and what you desire. There’s a sensational wrap-around movie sound score and a surprise showbiz finale where, miraculously, the whole audience is suddenly assembled from all corners. Go and have a good time, but don’t blame me if you don’t.