By David McShane
… the rough, unpolished physical world was taking on a mystic allure.
(Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood)
They were downstairs. The transvestite singer was compelling. I was alone. In a radioactive desert. By a congregation of straw people. With a black-clad woman, no, witch – she’s creating some mystic concoction. I lean over the bowl. I watch her hands move. Her veil shifts as an odor rises: earthly, fragrant.
She exits. I follow. A man appears. I’ll trip over his identity later but, for now, she applies her concoction to this man’s face.
There are now twenty other masked people. It darkens. It’s hard to decide if that over there is a black wall or some infinite space. We move closer. The man moves, dances, erupts. He is possessed.
With retrospect, so was I.
Punchdrunk, in their London show The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, create a communal dream. Snatches of dialogue echo in big spaces; small rooms drip with memory; images plaster, like a communion wafer, to the underside of a dry mind. A transformation occurs where theatre and art are no longer sit-and-don’t-touch events, but wander-touch-and-be-rewarded happenings. It was hilarious watching the crowd exit. They who had at first nervously entered now pushed at doors whilst ushers pulled them away. Three hours wasn’t enough.
The experience of The Drowned Man is quite hard to explain. Which is good. Because now you’ll have to go see it.
(It’s on until the end of December.)
To describe it as a melding of Büchner’s Woyzeck and a piece 1950s Hollywood history doesn’t quite do it justice. Neither does the term immersive theatre. Immersive theatre sounds experimental: a term we use to suggest something incomplete. Which is a fine if not vital stage in developing great theatre. But Punchdrunk understand what they’re trying to do completely. This stage of ‘perfecting the craft’ is confined to their archives. From the big dance numbers to the all-telling pencil scrawl in the Bible’s margin, Punchdrunk understand their form.
There is something perfect about The Drowned Man in its disruption expectation. It was the excitement a roller-coaster brings. The knowledge that you’re firmly strapped down by the conventions of a paid-for theatre experience doesn’t quite register at the fifth inverted corkscrew: when blood doesn’t know whether to run to your head or your feet, formal safety-measures no longer matter. Boundaries blur, weaken, become transparent. For there’s no gap between you and the performers. There’s no nuance of scenery which can’t be closely examined, no seat which is better than any other.
Perhaps my only critique of the three hours was the final dance number. It appeared to be a reconciliation of the audience’s disparate experiences. It was spectacular and neat. But I didn’t want to stand and watch even the most exquisite dance on a stage: I’d been taught to want the roughness, gain and loss of the wanderer. A stage seemed dull compared to the spaces Punchdrunk seemed to have found rather than manufactured.
It was in those spaces – where I could smell, touch, watch, follow, explore – that the best moments were formed. This was theatre dreamt into life; a theatre which extended three hours into a timeless space; a theatre which created for each audience member their own mystic fable.