Sunday, September 22, 2013

Punch Drunk, 18th September

I hadn't seen a Punch Drunk show before as they've been quite inactive over here since I first heard of them but judging by The Drowned Man they are clearly maestros of immersive theatre. This was a truly impressive piece of performance and I don't want to spoil it by giving too much away however, there may be some spoilers in terms of the experience as a whole.

You know pretty much nothing when you turn up but if you know anyone who has already been they will have probably given you one piece of advice - pick a character and follow them, regardless of what your companions do. This is sage advice.

Another thing which I shall reveal without giving too much away is the fact that you wear a mask when you are inside which you are forbidden from taking off. You are also prohibited from talking. You probably shouldn't talk during performances no matter what kind they are, but here as you are a 'part' of it all it is even more important. There is very little temptation to chat though because you will have probably lost all your mates within five minutes anyway.

The 'set' is huge, ranging over four floors. You are encouraged to explore the sets and wander around completely at your leisure; pick things up, read things, sit on the furniture and wait for the action to come to you if you choose. I chose to try to follow the narrative by following characters and therefore didn't explore that many of the sets whereas some of my friends did basically the opposite. The whole experience lasts three hours if you get an early timed ticket but that is still no way near enough time to see it all. They have created a whole world in there. And it is stunning. The amount of detail put into settings that aren't even used for the main storyline - that are 'merely' there for atmosphere and background is amazing. Smells and sounds give each area a distinct feel. And the whole thing is a dark, desolate and creepy. You may be encouraged to explore everywhere but you might not want to!

The masks make you simultaneously an active part of the performance yet also detach you from the action, giving you into a fly-on-the-wall perspective. You can get as close to the actors as you like, and it awakens in you an unnerving feeling of voyeurism; you do feel like you're watching private lives that aren't meant to be observed. On the other hand, if you want to follow a specific arc, you have to follow the actors. And they don't hang around - they make the use of all the space - the storyline sprawls across floors and through all different rooms and they move quickly. When you and several others rush after them, you feel like they are running away from you, that you are purposefully pursuing them, that it's you that is driving them on to whatever next might befall them. Additionally, wandering into one of the rooms on your own, you may come upon your fellow theatre-goers already there. Coming across one sole masked person in the dark, or several just standing there, waiting, is an effective part of the show in and of itself. 

The 'soundtrack' plays a huge part as though there is some speaking, most of the drama is conveyed through dance. Underscoring the whole thing is a droning, menacing noise peaking and falling. It's textbook horror-movie scoring and it can easily put you on edge and build the tension to what you are witnessing. 

And yes, I said this is more 'dance' than 'drama'. I can almost hear some groans but believe me it is not at all cheesy or 'interpretive'. It's fun, sometimes sexy, sometimes more like acrobatics than dance, and it means that even if you aren't right next to them, you can understand what is happening. This is also helped by the fact you are given an outline to the story before you go in. There are actually two main storylines that occur around you, with subplots within them. 

If you manage to follow one story the whole way through then hats off to you. I determined to follow one character but I soon lost them and just arbitrarily picked up the trail of someone else. This does lead to some of what you're watching not making a lot of sense, but I managed to end up in the storyline I began in, and felt like I'd watched almost a full, complete narrative arc. 

There's no right or wrong way to do it though - in fact if you're not fussed about seeing a storyline from beginning to end then chopping and changing the characters you follow is the best way to see snippets of everything on offer. If you just follow one there is lots you could end up not seeing (as one of my friends did). Unless you ignore their advice and stick staunchly with your friends, no two experiences will be alike. I went with a big group of people and some of the fun was comparing notes afterwards. While some of us had seen some of the same things, we all had seen things the others hadn't.

I absolutely recommend going to see this while you can. I'm even considering going back to see a bit more of the other plots and to explore the scenery in more detail, although I must admit the cost of the tickets is making me think twice. [Punch Drunk - any chance of a discount for people who have already been?] Having said that you can see where the money goes - it must have cost a fortune to create the interior and exterior world of Temple Studios in such detail. I am truly in awe of Punch Drunk's The Drowned Man.

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I work as an editor in educational publishing by day, and then spend most of my spare time discovering interesting things to do in London, and taking people there with my own Meetup.