We were tipped out of a darkened lift into more darkness, a handful of audience members about to experience Punchdrunk’s cult offering, The Drowned Man.
I came to a parking lot strewn with recently vacated film studio caravans, each filled with the discarded personal belongings of imagined 1950s/60s stars of Temple Studios. Unmade beds in the semi-darkness, little notes pinned on walls – clues maybe, about what the night might hold in store. I wandered into a bar. A woman was singing a mournful song to a man perched on the counter.
I watched them play out a scene of sulky shattered romance and then wandered next door where another man had just finished dancing with a woman. Rumbling chords and subdued lighting. Suddenly, he dashed to a pair of doors. Ah, some action, I thought, and followed. At the door, he turned to me and said: “Leave me, don’t follow me.” – A provocation if ever I had one. Soon a group of us 20 masked audience members gathered at the foot of a stairwell to watch him.
He climbed on the banister and put his feet on the wall, acting out being pulled up the stairwell, with extraordinary muscular movements. He looked like a puppet, but no strings attached.
I followed him up the stairs. At the top, he warned us off again as he entered a darkened room, shooting us his best tortured look before turning away. Once again, we ignored his warning and followed.
Through darkness and pools of subdued light, he made his way across a desert floor to an altar where a congregation of 20 scarecrows were seated. The altar was a makeshift affair made of desert detritus. He leant upon it. A live scarecrow rose from the congregation, took hold of him and they danced a struggle together. The scarecrow dragged his lifeless form to a tent where I watched him for a few minutes, before wandering around to look at a solitary sandy hill and a wooden cabin.
I returned. Our lifeless man was still in his tent, so I looked for other action. The scarecrow had gone to an office at one end of the room. I followed him and watched him change out of his clothing… Then he made his way from the room.
And cut! Time for a quick pee.
I wandered into a tiled 1930s-style toilet room that had once been used by countless posties, and took a moment to consider. Was this part of the set? Or was it actually an old Post Office toilet? It was the latter, I decided.
The Drowned Man was set inside a building previously used as a massive Royal Mail sorting office near Paddington Underground. The loo I was in was a glimpse beneath the greasepaint and I savoured it as such for its incongruousness and cheeky irrelevance to the main show.
A masked man entered the toilet and pulled his mask off, clearly uncomfortable. “It’s weird,” he said to me. “It’s all very, very weird.”
I felt for him. That sorting office is a very big space to feel adrift in.
For me the strangeness wasn’t a problem. After all, we know we’re entering a made-up world the moment we enter the building and a camp elevator-boy invites us into the studios to enjoy a “post-wrap party” in a faux American accent. The moment we don our nightmarish skeletal masks in order to distinguish us from the actors, our psychology is altered. If they’d wanted to give a masterclass in experiencing firsthand Sartre’s Existentialist paranoid alienation, Punchdrunk couldn’t have done better.
No doubt about it, the little world inside that sorting office is extraordinary. A continual soundtrack resounds through every room in the massive space, seemingly sampled from the darkest moments of Twin Peaks. Rumbling chords fill the void with a sense of impending doom and invisible danger. It’s the sort of soundtrack you hear at the movies when an unseen observer watches an ill-fated protagonist about to be murdered.
Of course, in this case, we are the unseen observers… Oh how post-post-post-modern! I can imagine how pleased everyone in the troupe was with that little conceit.
At this stage, early in the night, I was hopeful that I would be able to piece together the story of why the man had been left in the tent. I left the puzzled man hiding in the loo and headed out from my pit stop to find out more. Just a little bit of close attention, I kidded myself, and the narrative will unfold. To make that work, I decided I needed to take hold of a character and follow them through the evening, then things would fit together.
Here’s what happened next:
I followed one woman as she got drunk with a Pierrot in a tent in the desert. Then she danced with a film company executive on a table in a boardroom and was given a script. She then listened to a recording on a Dictaphone of her child reciting a poem. Cleverly, the electronics in the room synchronised the sound so that half way through the poem the child’s voice (it was not a child’s voice, it was an adult actor pretending to be a child) from the Dictaphone synchronised with a booming hellish voice coming over the speakers and she looked a bit disturbed. It was, perhaps, an artistic representation of schizophrenia.
I then followed her to a film sound effects room where she nearly drowned the alcoholic Pierrot I had encountered previously. His was an impressive feat of breath-holding.
Then, after she had nearly drowned him, the Pierrot kind of shrugged it off and the action continued.
And suddenly, my attention started to wander. That near-drowning was a turning point for me. It was when I stopped caring about the characters. Because they weren’t characters. They were caricatures – and inconsistent ones at that who didn’t behave like people. Someone tries to drown you, for Pete’s sake! And you just smile and get on with it. Bollocks.
I’ll be frank. I had expected something cleverer than this. Yes, each room was no less than a superb art installation, although the pervading gloom made the design difficult to appreciate. And they had overlaid these stunning sets with these unsettling sounds to produce a very specific, miserable mood pallet. It was experientially extraordinary. It was a spectacle.
But there was no let-up in the brooding mood and the whole experience was deeply oppressive. I remember walking into a wig room on one floor finding myself surrounded by weird images, hair and human heads, mirrors and the mess of life. Amazing? Sure. In the way Tate Modern is amazing. I stepped into another room out of curiosity. The floor was planted with dried flowers which gave a pungent smell and which cast nightmarish shadows on the walls. Nothing happened in that room. I stood there for a moment, enjoying the beauty of it, and the loneliness, and the quiet – a release from the relentless darkness and noise of the sound stages. It was, I thought, American Gothic meets the Tate Modern.
It was then I realised I was bored. Two hours in, and nothing had come together. I’d seen lots of different dance vignettes. I’d seen an orgy where a man is stripped naked and mounted by a woman in a red dress. I’d followed a woman and seen her take some scissors from the rafters of her dressing room. Then I’d seen her drag that same man to the top of a wooded hill and murder him – the tail end of a scene I’d already watched before, and at last I had a little bit of narrative, which was all rather heavy handed…
I happened on the woman in the sound room again, just about to half drown her Pierrot again. She was obviously performing on a loop. I thought: “Oh, it’s like channel-hopping and getting a series of repeats.” I was annoyed by the lack of development.
Yes, I know the performance was “fractured”. That is the trendy word to describe it. I’m sure motifs within it were meant to raise those sorts of questions so often encouraged at University and art school by young lecturers with creased brows. You know: What is reality? Are we in control of our own fates? What is real and what is imagined?
But when I saw the murder on the hill for a second time, I was well on my way to looking for the remote control and switching off.
Since no-one behaved like real people anyway, a murder on a hill wasn’t really a murder on a hill, and it didn’t matter whether this was being filmed for Temple Studios and was a wrap or was a “real” murder. After all, everything was made up anyway.
What was the night made of? Essentially, a series of dance vignettes. That’s basically it. At the end of the show, we got one more vignette: A woman got into a pond and lifted a drowned man. Then it rained – a little square of tears falling on the pond from the ceiling, while she drew her expression into one of pre-Raphaelite anguish.
By then, I was pissed off and I wanted to go back home to something that is genuinely and totally weird.