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Recent reviews of Punchdrunk’s latest dance-spectacle-meets-haunted-house extravaganza The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable (Woyzeck by generous way of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, the seminal study of shattered Hollywood dreams) have often put Punchdrunk itself on trial: reviewers donning masks to enter the company’s dreamlike world either love or hate the kind of theatrical dialectics Punchdrunk has to offer. At best, the company’s patented methods (the short version: you wear masks, you wander about an enormous and labyrinthine space, following actor-dancers whose relationship to gravity is best described as tenuous; you won’t see everything, and probably won’t make sense of it either; sometimes you’ll find yourself alone in a locked room with an performer and invited to interact) are a powerful reappraisal of the relationship between spectator and performer. At worst, it’s pretentious and self-indulgent, knowingly indecipherable enough to trick punters into buying multiple tickets in the hopes of putting the work’s fragmentary pieces together into a comprehensible whole. Yet less, it seems, has been written on The Drowned Man itself – whether it stands or falls as a Punchdrunk piece.
Perhaps fittingly for a show that relies so heavily on the spectator’s individual approach, I arrive at Temple Studios – the dilapidated mid-century film set that forms the background for most of The Drowned Man‘s interactions – with my own set of prejudices: I’m a self-avowed theatrical adrenaline junkie, chasing the intensity of interactive experience like a child that’s never fully let go of the possibilities of pretend. I’ve seen Punchdrunk’s New York standby Sleep No More nine times (and written likely hagiographic screeds about it for the New Statesman and Los Angeles Review of Books); I’ve stayed up all night to attend Third Rail’s Then She Fell in Williamsburg; I’ve adopted the role of several Shakespearean heroines at Oneohone at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe. By the time I entered the down-and-out trailer park “outside the gates” of Temple Studios, I was bouncing on my heels, anxious to careen about the space in search of its secrets.
Full disclosure: I saw The Drowned Man as an ordinary punter during the first week of previews and was profoundly unimpressed. The tech was spotty; the set unfinished; the choreography vague; and the two interlocking Woyzeck-inspired plots (featuring the highly-strung movie actress Wendy and the cuckolded janitor William, respectively) utterly baffling. But from the moment I arrived at Saturday night’s performance and was introduced to the basic elements of the plot by a perky “film executive” (a slightly clumsy but ultimately necessary touch), I was engrossed (and, dare I say it, immersed?) in the world Punchdrunk had created. Like Sleep No More‘s McKittrick Hotel, the world around Temple Studios is fraught with the erotic possibilities of voyeurism (in one particularly memorable scene, the enigmatic – and possibly Masonic – studio head watches a half-naked Wendy undergo a medical examination through a trick-screen in the town cinema; in another highlight, that same studio head introduces himself to a frightened ingénue by confronting her with a recorded narrative of their interaction). But Temple Studios, unlike the McKittrick, is hardly intimate. Indeed, the sheer enormity of the space – a former postal sorting office near Paddington station – creates an almost sterile atmosphere: the large offices, studio lots and wide sand dunes as empty as the seedy, soulless Hollywood Punchdrunk serves to evoke.
At worst, such scale confirms the damning diagnosis of Punchdrunk’s harshest critics – that they’ve fallen in love with spectacle at the expense of storytelling. The wig rooms, prop stores, SFX suites and prosthetic workshops that compose Temple Studios are by now stunningly realistic, but all too often uninhabited: I spent a good forty minutes two thirds of the way into the show’s run actively (and vainly) searching for characters to follow. At best, however, the sheer grandeur of The Drowned Man‘s scale allows for greater thematic variety than even my beloved Sleep No More has to offer. The choreography has progressed beyond variations on omnisexual attraction, however affecting, and – despite the twin central narratives of infidelity – it felt clear that such passions did not exist in a vacuum. The world of Temple Studios and the dilapidated town on its outskirts alike suggest a world of power (whether in the form of the mysterious studio head or the equally chilling doctor who examines both William and Wendy), money and class – all these play their parts in The Drowned Man’s great American conspiracy of the haves against the have-nots (a conspiracy that, if the numerous Masonry references are anything to go by, is more than a product of William and Wendy’s paranoid imaginings).
This is particularly the case in the “outside the gates” storyline (paranoid janitor William loses faithless Mary to red-shirted cowboy Dwayne; murder and madness ensue). As William, Paul Zivkovich (the cast shifts roles nightly) is all primal heaviness and sweaty desperation, Stanley Kowalski doing backflips over a red Buick, knocking back beers, swinging on saloon chandeliers, every motion indicative of a man raging against the dictums of his richers and betters. (William’s story occupied much of my time on Saturday’s performance, but I feel compelled to break the the “no talking about previews” rule to single out Sophie Bortolussi’s tightly-coiled Wendy and Conor Doyle’s childlike Frankie, whose parallel scroungings for stardom were the highlights of my visit in late June.) In these stories – writ large – the epic scale of the story being told makes up for some of Temple Studio’s anaesthetic coldness.
Yet, in some cases, the moments of intimacy in The Drowned Man are stronger than ever. My body language doubtless the over-willing “pick me” desperation of a rescue puppy at the pound, I found myself mistaken for a murdered Mary by Zivkovich’s William, examined by a German doctor and invited into encounter after encounter. Yet among these, most striking was my experience with Sam Booth’s magnetic, chillingly erotic studio head, who held out his hand to me in a crowded cinema before leading me on a ten-minute-long voyage into the underbelly of the studio lots, culminating in a lengthy, verbal, tactile “audition” in a private chamber. The interactive encounter was one of the longest I’ve had in a Punchdrunk show – and almost certainly one of the most intense. Most striking of all, however, was the studio head’s implicit offer: stick with me, kid, and I’ll make you a star. As I followed Booth through a series of increasingly disturbing scenes (including the requisite Punchdrunk penis-waving orgy), I felt that I was being offered a relationship beyond the boundaries of a “one-to-one” encounter (at one point, when Booth re-enacted with another character a gesture he’d done to me in the privacy of the audition room, he turned back to me with a smile) – I became less a voyeur, in the typical Punchdrunk sense, than an extra on the studio lot (a conceit The Drowned Man unfortunately seems to have abandoned since previews), my own story ever contiguous to, but never approaching, the story of Temple Studios’ stars.
The Drowned Man isn’t perfect – the space still feels too large and extraneous for the action; there is still a disquieting broadness in some of the choreography. But when it works, it’s Punchdrunk at its best: expansive, infinitely complex, hinting at a secret whole beyond the sum of its parts. Whether repeat visits will shine light on the Masonic temple, the mysterious workings of the studio head’s underlings, or who on earth was the witch-like woman stalking through the woods, is anyone’s guess – and there’s a part of me that winces at paying almost £50 for the privilege of finding out. But, like the down-and-out gamblers of The Drowned Man‘s fading LA, I’ll play until the very last hand.
The Drowned Man continues at Temple Studios until December 30. See the National Theatre website for more information.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.