Half buried in a mound of sand, the glowing light bulbs of an old motel sign light the path. More moonscape than desert, ominous music wails and builds. Was something about to happen? Sand in my shoes, I wait, I walk around a static funeral scene with an audience of straw-men mourners, I see a solitary woman in a veil wandering through the sand and… I get bored and leave the floor, apparently just missing a key scene in the narrative in Punchdrunk’s most recent offering The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.
Alas, these are the risks of Punchdrunk’s immersive theater, where the journey you go on is truly individualized.
As you enter the cavernous Central London theater space, you are handed a card telling the tale of a movie studio love triangle, insanity, and murder. Other than that, you’re on your own. The rules of the show are simple: the audience wears masks, actors do not, and you are not allowed to speak. Follow the actors to discover scenes, touch whatever you want. And if you’re lucky — or unlucky, depending on how you see things — you might get touched back.
When I arrived, I was deposited on a floor where the story was about the denizens of a desert town which abuts the Temple Movie Studio. I wandered through a dress shop, rusty old campers, and a saloon-like bar, where scenes of raucous cowboys and the women who tangle with them unfold. Rowdy drinking leads to dancing and it is only a few steps from lust to violence. As one cowboy has sex with one woman up against a windowpane outside the bar, her boyfriend watches in horror. Baseball bats come out and the men fight.
Picking up the story by following one (or more) of these actors you are led from room to room. Another fight ensues in a dank hotel room, a woman rushes into the street calling for her girlfriend and off they go to the cowboy bar where a drag-queen torch singer mounts a cowboy on top of the bar. You know, the usual.
The multitude of two-hander scenes led to brief but intense moments. And while, in some ways, the myriad of confrontations felt repetitive — they either end in sex or violence and sometimes both — they gave the overall feel of The Drowned Man a heat and a tension that I did not feel as acutely in Sleep No More.
On other floors of the multilevel installation, there were movie studio sets where groups of actors performed lip-synched musical numbers dressed like motorcycle greasers. A Sal Mineo-esque actor is manipulated by a director and producer. Other parts of the space looked like abandoned movie studio spaces left to decay.
Much of The Drowned Man’s staging created a sense of voyeurism. You could peer through dirty windows with the curtains half-closed, watch what was happening inside from outside the building. Rather than putting you in the immediate space of the actors, this layering both supported the movie-making narrative and enhanced the lurid quality of the experience.
Near the very end of the evening I came across the main narrative for what I’m pretty sure was the first time. I watched as the movie star disrobed her companion entirely and gave him a graphic blow job while the aforementioned director protégé engaged in a similar scene with his young male protégé. After describing this to one friend, she talked of seeing a slightly different version of this scene wherein everyone’s clothes came off (I only saw the companion fully naked). I heard there were naked cowboys but I only saw clothed ones — the one in the red shirt was my fave, I would have liked to be pressed up against a windowpane with him — while other friends mentioned a drowning and a stabbing, neither of which I saw. In fact, other people have complained about the lack of action and I can understand how they’d feel that way, I nearly left a few rooms just before major scenes happened and other times I wasn’t lucky enough to stay.
If you get tickets, there is no specific show strategy I can suggest, though breaking off from my friends probably helped me, as I was lighter on my feet and more able to chase performers. Patience may or may not be rewarded. In some spaces it seems nothing happens, while in others I saw multiple scenes take place over time. Several times, thinking I had already “covered” a space, I stuck around anyway and learned that a totally different story was about to unfold. In the end, I had only 2 hours in the show and wished I had more.
Unfortunately, while The Drowned Man is heavy on atmosphere, sometimes it’s a little hard to put your finger on what’s being referenced. It is noir-ish at times, but mostly seems to be riffing on 1950’s Hollywood, with hints of melodrama, genre icons (motorcycle gangs, cowboys), and racy scandals. Ultimately I think Punchdrunk has a limited theatrical vocabulary, but they dress it up in truly rich and colorful clothes. If you’ve seen Sleep No More you might find The Drowned Man feels at times redundant (another drag queen torch singer, inexplicable lip-synching, nudity, writhing/dancing). But if you’re not too worried about the narrative, the B-movie atmosphere is a lot more suitable to the immersive format, and infinitely more sexy and fun. Let’s just say it’s lucky the air conditioning was set to high, as the entire evening could get anyone a little hot under the collar.
Photo: Pari Naderi