Where no gods are, spectres rule.
A couple of weekends ago, Jeff and I went to see The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, a production by Punchdrunk and the National Theatre. It was a very new sort of theatre experience for us but from scope to scale, one of the most ambitious productions I’ve ever seen. Walk with me, kittens. Literally.
First of all, it’s an immersion experience. It’s promenade style theatre so you’re walking around, on your feet the entire time (and performances can last up to three hours). Second of all, you’re supposed to go exploring. Wander through the set, which takes up four floors of an entire building, poke into closets, rifle through papers, open shut doors to see what character or secret passages lurk inside. And lastly, everyone wears masks giving you a sense of anonymity as part of the set, and also the feeling of being a ghoulish sort of voyeur into the scenes you witness.
The play itself is loosely inspired by Georg Büchner’s famously unfinished play Woyzeck, set in a faded Hollywood production studio and the dying town surrounding it where has-beens and wannabes mingle together either waiting for their second chance or big break. There are two main plotlines both involving infidelity and the descent into madness. But, and this is the most interesting part, there are other storylines that intersect and weave throughout the main ones. Wearing your mask, you must follow the characters you wish to throughout their plot to understand what’s going on. All the while, though, you’re crisscrossing other characters, other plotlines and getting hints of other stories. It’s possible to mix up the crowd of other witnesses you’re in and end up following a different character entirely from the one you started.
Like not a few of the minds they are portraying, it’s very fractal and disorienting. Much like most people’s everyday experiences, a lot of things are going on around you as a viewer, but you can only focus on one or two of them at a time and get the sense that you’re missing out on a lot of information.
Wisely the production cycles through itself a couple of times, allowing the audience more than one chance to grasp onto a tale and follow it to its conclusion. But it is impossible to follow every character and every plotline in the time allotted, which means you as the audience member have to decide. The feeling is very similar to those choose-your-own-adventure books for children, but all grown up, adult and darker.
A shabby sort of town, a movie lot, a trailerpark, nightclubs for the beautiful people and honkytonks for the less so, a church, the woods, a cinema, doctors’ offices are all laid out in such a way that if you follow a character, the layout blends together and creates a plot. But if you don’t you’ll find yourself lost and turned around almost immediately. Watch the trailer below to get some idea of the set and creative. The whole thing is a labyrinth fearfully and wonderfully made, I cannot imagine the time it took to coordinate a dozen storylines simultaneous over multiple building stories, multiple sets, and interacting with one another.
For example, at one point one woman looks in a mirror and is clearly contemplating whether she should go through with her affair. The mirror fades to partial transparency and the audience can clearly see that the reflection is not her but her husband. Because there is no “offstage,” the husband’s storyline is proceeding with its own audience at the same time; he’s in a doctor’s office looking at those one-way mirrors, his mental state beginning to deteriorate and hallucinating his wife. Those sorts of integrations run throughout the production. And yet somehow, every audience member ends up at the finale in the same place at the same time. I seriously want to shake the hand of the person who blocked this thing because I have no idea how they did it.
As theatre goes there are times it stumbles – sometimes you can’t even hear the actors speaking because you’re too far away from them, and other technical concerns – but as an immersion experience goes it’s absolutely stellar. It’s intimate, closeup, and deeply personal. Audience members jockey for position to follow and get best views to the storylines, and in the end (as both the main plots end in murder) you’re left very aware of your own voyeurism.