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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Drowned Man
Punchdrunk at Temple Studios   Summer-Winter 2013

Making their return to the London stage after a sabbatical spent conquering New York, Punchdrunk hold a uniquely contradictory position.

On the one hand, they are the darlings of British experimental theatre; on the other, they are disparaged as sell-outs and hacks, partly susceptible to the inevitable backlash that comes with acclaim, partly to mass criticism over their soaring ticket prices.

To say too much about their new show, The Drowned Man, risks spoiling its surprises. This would be a shame, as so much of the joy of this production comes from discovering it for yourself, exploring the former postal sorting warehouse in Paddington that Punchdrunk have transformed, madly and impossibly, into a 1960s film studio.

It is a haunted, eerie place, impossibly vast – there must be a good third of it that I had not discovered by the time I left – and impossibly detailed.

If you so desired you could spend your entire visit simply exploring: the audience are genuinely given free rein to choose their own path and create their own story.

This makes it relatively difficult to describe what happens, as the plot, such as it is, may have little or nothing to do with your experience of the show.

Loosely, it is a retelling of Georg Buchner's Woyzek, transposed to the sinister Temple Studios and peopled with Hollywood egos, studio executives and bombshell leading ladies.

A foreknowledge of Woyzek may illuminate things slightly, though little of Buchner's plot is used except its central arc – marital jealousy with a violent and inevitable conclusion – and there are hints of Buchner's unfinished script littered throughout the piece, as when one glimpses the studio doctor feeding his patients peas as if they are pills.

The fact that the audience are masked before entering the space and must remain so throughout is a much-maligned element of Punchdrunk’s work, and the masks are indeed both hot and uncomfortable. But they separate the audience from the unmasked actors perfectly, so that you are able to identify performers and follow them across the huge set.

They also have the added effect of providing real atmosphere: with the long bills of their masks hiding their faces, fellow audience members become sinister, peering like flocks of birds over the shoulders of the play’s oblivious characters.

In this world where, as in Buchner’s play, those at the top control the lives of those at the bottom, almost without caring or trying to, the masks seem to underline our role as Hollywood consumers, fans, and onlookers.

There are no cameras at Temple Studios and we the audience are some horrible mixture of camera and ghost, peering in at these people through their windows, reading their diaries, stalking the miserable in the hopes of seeing a fight or a love affair.

If everything here is engineered by the studio – in one brief throwaway scene that feels like a nightmare, the memorial to a deceased young actress pre-dates her death – then the masks make us complicit.

Although Maxine Doyle's choreography is beautiful, it is highly repetitive, and generally features couples moving ambiguously together in a way that signifies violence, or sex, or both.

Indeed, there’s so much to puzzle over, discuss, see and think about in here, that it’s frustrating that no matter what path you choose, you will miss vast amounts of this show.

And it is perhaps just as frustrating that, although this is a show that encourages you quite openly to tread your own path, the finale is structured around one specific plot line, which many people will surely end up seeing little of before being confronted with its denouement.

The Drowned Man is genuinely unlike anything else I've seen before – it is theatre, but also part-dance, part-adventure, part-fairground ride, part-social experiment. But can you really charge so much for something with as many kinks and problems as anything experimental is bound to be?

The question of value for money has dogged this production so far, and with a recently extended run and plenty of tickets still available post-August, the question is surely as pertinent for Punchdrunk as for their audiences.

Lauren Mooney

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Review - The Drowned Man - Punchdrunk at Paddington 2013  

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