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Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man - A Hollywood Fable, reviewed by Matthew Cook

Punchdrunk’s latest offering is a mysterious affair, but is it all just smoke and mirrors? The devil is in the detail, says Matthew Cook.

Punchdrunk are pioneers of the immersive theatre phenomenon that swept across the cultural landscape in recent years. In fact, for many they are a byword for the entire genre.

While contemporaries such as You Me Bum Bum Train, Shunt and Dreamthinkspeak cause quite a stir, no one captures the imagination of hip young theatre goers more so than the ground breaking company.

Previous shows Faust (2006) and Masque of the Red Death (2008) enjoyed sold out London runs, playing to 70,000 people respectively. High profile international projects followed, such as 2009’s Macbeth, Sleep No More in New York, which attracted over 200,000 people. If critics were divided, audiences were unanimous in their praise, earning Punchdrunk a cult-like following and confirming their status as the jewel in the crown of a new wave of emerging British Theatre.

Despite controversy surrounding them and hostility within traditional theatre circles, audiences have once again come out in their droves to see their latest production, an elaborate and dissociative journey through a 1950’s film studio.

Loosely based on German playwright Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, The Drowned Man, A Hollywood Fable is a vast reimagining of Temple Pictures, the ghost of a Hollywood dream factory populated by young and ambitious stars on fringe of the movie industry.

The show bristles with sex and sleaze from the outset. An early encounter with a nymph-like character in an elevator sets the tone and after a few house rules - we are encouraged to stray from our companions and to remain silent at all times - we pull down the eerily blank masks now synonymous with Punchdrunk and the masquerade begins.

What follows is a dizzying romp through the vaults of Temple Pictures. The cast, animated by Maxine Doyle’s exhilarating choreography, perform routines with puppet-like obedience, by turns euphoric, chaotic, violent and intriguingly elusive. As we begin our promenade we meet a couple performing a sort of ritualistic tango with a piece of furniture. Soon they vanish and we witness a feverish orgy. A mere ten minutes have passed and the adrenalin is palpable.

The ensuing three hours is a cleverly woven series of vignettes performed largely in mute. Dance features prominently, with the occasional snippet of dialogue helping little to clarify the resounding mystery of this curious Hollywood fable. Staged across the five floors of the building, The Drowned Man is a disorientating experience and the scant narrative is fractious to say the least.

But there’s method in the madness. What appear to be arbitrary episodes are in fact carefully plotted and while the audience roam wherever they choose, Punchdrunk shepherd us through the piece with a range clever theatrical devices.

David Lynch is clearly an influence and the directors presence can be felt everywhere from the dual reality of the studio itself (drawing obvious parallels with Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire) to a perverse sexual undercurrent and fascination with the dark underbelly of America.

The pervading atmosphere is sinister and edgy, appropriate considering Woyzeck’s themes of lust, jealousy and murder. It is the audience however who provide the constant sense of unease. Intent on squeezing every last drop from the experience we swarm greedily after performers and loom ominously on the periphery of the interplay. More than once I was caught in a tussle to catch a dramatic exchange and there was a something undeniably menacing about our collective voyeurism.

My attempt to tease a coherent narrative from the action bore little fruit but there is much to gain from stopping and examining the startling minutiae on display. Temple Pictures is brought to life with meticulous precision and endless clues are placed strategically throughout. In The Drowned Man the devil is in the detail. Here, vivid realism clings precariously to celluloid fantasy and as the story unfolds all certainty dissolves into the subterranean depths of this hallucinatory world.

If Punchdrunk’s latest instalment is a conflict between substance and spectacle, spectacle triumphs in the end. But the beauty of the show is that each member of the audience has a unique experience. Afterwards it took some time before my companion and I were able find words to discuss what we had seen and even longer to climatise to the world outside.

The Drowned Man is a mysterious affair and despite feeling it went to great lengths to elude our understanding I was overwhelmed by its intensity. Ultimately, though it was an obscure experience, leaving me with the resounding sense that what happens at Punchdrunk, stays at Punchdrunk.


For more info and tickets nationaltheatre.org.uk


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