On Wednesday night, I went to see the immersive-interactive performance and theatre production ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk and the National Theatre. It took place in the former postal-mail building next to Paddington Station in London. A vast building and warehouse space that’s always in transition used for different purposes, functions and events (this I only know as one of my friends I went with that evening is a surveyor/structural engineer (hope I got that right) and had to assess the building prior to its use for the London 2012 Olympics…he also told me about the mail tube lines that still exist down there – I like hidden knowledge, hidden spaces, hidden finds…I swear my life is about the “hide and seek” sometimes, more seeking than hiding, and well, we all know that I love sending post). Prior to going, I’d heard a little from friends about what to expect…from wearing a mask, not uttering a word, its unknown personal journey, and its “haunted house” effect…but really not much more, just that I had to see it. I’d gone with two male friends, one of which had kindly bought the tickets as a Christmas gift for us all…not just standard tickets either, the premium kind (thank you AGAIN!).
Perhaps best to introduce a little background to the performance. It was inspired by Georg Büchner’s fractured masterpiece ‘Woyzeck’, which deals with the dehumanising effects of doctors and the military on a young man’s life, often seen as a ‘working-class’ tragedy and as having another dimension, portraying the ‘perennial tragedy of human jealousy’. It is loosely based on the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, a Leipzig wigmaker who later became a soldier. In 1821, Woyzeck, in a fit of jealousy, murdered Christiane Woost, a widow with whom he had been living. He was later publicly beheaded.
‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ explores the darkness of the Hollywood dream where celluloid fantasy meets desperate reality in a hallucinatory world, again portraying the tragedy of human jealousy, intense lust and emotion, love, sex and sexuality, scandal, (the fight for) success, acknowledgement, failure, struggle, murder and death, memorial, ritual and true connections. It’s all about connections – emotional, physical, spiritual, creative. “Amidst the fading glamour of 1960s Los Angeles, stands Temple Studios – a crumbling monument to the golden age of film, seducing wide-eyed dreamers with the promise of wealth and fame. Here, movie stars mingle with hungry young upstarts, while beyond the gates lies a forgotten hinterland where the many rejected by the studio system scratch out a living.”
“Have you ever seen nature inside out? When the sun stands at midday and it’s as if the world was going up in flames?”
The premium tickets allowed us to enter Temple Studios via the Studio Entrance rather than the normal main entrance, available only to a small number of guests each night, where we were then given a private scene-setting prologue with a shot glass (slightly frugal?) of cocktail – a screwdriver – the welcoming lady joked saying ‘you’ve all taken LSD right?’ I won’t answer that question. Looking back, I necked mine in perhaps a not too lady-like fashion – “down the hatch madam” – then we were asked to take a seat round a dark wood oval table that had books and pictures of reference to the performance. She then began…setting the scene…introducing characters…laying down the law of how to interact, discover, play, find, experience. No words to be said…the more you hunt the more you’ll find…follow characters to wherever they go…engage with characters if they engage with you…if you see a tunnel get on your hands and knees and crawl (I found no tunnels)…walk through wardrobes to get taken to other lands (again I never found said wardrobe(s) – I wanted a Narnia moment!). She informed us that our experience was dependent on how willing we were to let go. I’m such a curious and inquisitive person every single day (I swear I see the world differently than most, daydreaming and dreaming far too much, with an obsession with the UK sky) that I had no fear about what was to come…and was in actual fact at my most childlike and playful. I just wanted to go and investigate EVERYTHING as soon as possible. The premium ticket also gave you a special key card to gain access to secret rooms and spaces and a taste of Mr Stanford’s famous hospitality. The basement room I never found…I won’t tell you what was in there (which I heard from my friends) in case any of you readers go. Not really that fussed that I missed but at the time I was distraught at the fact I just couldn’t find it!
Once released from the prologue, we were handed white masks (that you can see below and note, do not sit well over wide-eyed glasses) and ushered towards the huge metal warehouse lifts that took us to the main event. As we were in the lift, another introduction was given by an in character bell boy. The lift doors opened, I stepped out, as did one of my friends, then turned around to see the lift had moved on and then turned the other way to see my friend had gone. This was it…I was alone…time for it to begin…time to play.
I can’t really comprehend it all…still mulling over every second of the whole night…having flashbacks, questionable flashbacks as to what happened…did it happen(?)…the room where a deconstructed piano sat amongst typewriters, dream catchers, black and white archived photographs, a repair room for objects that I wished I owned…small office spaces…elaborate bedrooms and bathrooms…the security guards office…memorials and shrines at every turn dedicated to those killed and lost…backstage and dressing areas, and beautifying bars…sets within studios within sets…the bar area where for one moment it was desolate and I danced alone and I swear for this got given a drink (it was pushed down the bar to me) by the in character barman…the small film theatre with cinema seating showing a black and white animation of a galloping horse where I was hugged by the award-winning in character actor as he processed partial psychosis…the 1960s street of shops with the flower shop and milk bar where lovers were seen to lust in telephone booths and contemplate over the fountain…the 1960s Cadillac with its light on full beam piercing through the room…the woods and caravan-trailer park laced with Mexican religious references…the central hall where fake dead bodies were laid to rest on the checkerboard floor……mirrors for (self-reflection) everywhere…initiations and auditions of actors and actresses…back to the bar where characters danced, connected, deceived, hurt, agonised, fraught with raw emotion as a couple torn apart by jealousy and an affair simulated sex before the uprising of a beautifully choreographed fight (of dance)…the room full of sand where fake scarecrow like dead bodies were seated as if seated on a train heading to the next realm. On the third floor, there was another bar area where masks could be removed, identity regained, drinks bought to give you perspective and time to understand what on earth was going on…a place for you to reconnect with your friends that you left at the door (this never happened for us three), have a sit down and listen to the live music and shows offered in line, in character, with the performance. There was a constant soundtrack throughout the performance to build anticipation and tension in the moment, which I wondered when turned off, what it would do to the space, and whether it would change experience – more fear perhaps? Attention to detail was something else considering the scale of the production.
When we were told by the people in black masks (the production aids as such) to move towards the middle floor for the final scene, I felt a slight anticlimax as I wanted more time, more time to walk on all the different floors and textures, more time to look-search-touch-smell-hold my breath-be someone else just for that moment. The final scene brought everyone together in one room. Performers danced with the audience until a final scene took place on stage…the coming together of all the characters we’d been following, chasing, watching, listening to, immersed in over the past few hours. It is here that the murders, the loss of life, the loss of love comes together. When it finished the actors and actresses that were at that point dead were laying under warm rain. For just a moment, a few minutes I stood with my mask off staring at them as they clutched each other playing dead. Embraced in love, inescapable emotion. I cried and I’m not sure why. A sudden sense of vulnerability as my face was bare and could be seen? Or more so that the emotion of the event has culminated there and then in that moment.
I always wanted more from the performance, more connections, more moments of character connection, more intimacy, more fear. I wanted to be stared at hard in the eyes, I wanted more physicality from being danced with or held, or involved in scenes, I wanted more objects to hunt for or find or even take home…and perhaps fewer people to share the experience as it did get crowded in certain areas where scenes played out.
The story was in part difficult to piece together alone. It was only afterwards when sitting in the premium bar drinking needed rum and gingers with my friends that we could collectively start to make sense of what we’d just seen…start to decode, compare, contrast, share and together experience ‘The Drowned Man’. I had a frightening amount of energy for and after the event considering I’d been very ill in recovery kingdom the day before. In one word I would describe it as “numinous”…in two “choreographed voyeurism”…where one friend called it a “labyrinthine”.
Nearly two days on and I’m still having reminders, visions, daydreams…and weirdly, the evening after the event I did something that I don’t usual ever do…something that happens very, very occasionally and that you never forget. I dreamed about the reality that I was experiencing at that moment, the situation that I was in at that time, the place where I was sleeping, watching myself in that moment and seeing it play out. When I woke up in the morning, I had a strange moment of questioning my realities…fiction and non-fiction…whilst smiling at the fact that experiences and connections like that do happen in the world…and that’s what I live for…experiences like the theatrical performance of ‘The Drowned Man’…the real experience of dreaming…the connections that happen on a daily basis. I “connect the dots that people can’t see” and, as we all know, I’m a big dreamer…and may that never stop.