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A CurtainUp London Review
The Drowned Man
Like all Punchdrunk shows the audience are admitted in smallish groups and given a mask to wear. Thankfully the English heatwave means the cloaks were left off.
I have been fortunate enough to visit The Drowned Man, subtitled A Hollywood Fable, twice. Mr Stanford is the studio head and his eerie voice haunts the film sets and warns about the area outside. The first time I stayed largely within the film studios and back lots, looking at a tale of adultery of Wendy and Marshall, where Marshall is seduced by the glamorous film star Dolores. Cast parties predominate and there is lots of alcohol and cocaine and cross dressing as other people try on Dolores' red sequined gown.
The detail of Punchdrunk's other productions is there behind the scenes, the costume room, the prosthetics, the director's office, the letters folded into an origami circle, the sound effects studio as well as the heart-stopping dramatic dance and fight encounters of the protagonists. The most dramatic set piece was in a kitchen where the domestic betrayal is played out with a magnificent dance of adultery and deception. This is of course a part of the filming.
Did I fully understand what I was watching? No, that isn't really the point of a Punchdrunk production. It is to feel it, to hover round the experience like flies round a corpse or bees round a honey pot under the anonymity of those faceless masks.
The second time I went, I was outside the Studio gates in the area they call dangerous following William and Mary. I followed one character, Vinicius Salles' Drugstore Cowboy in his Western hat, jeans and red shirt. On the first visit I had only seen Vinicius at the end show, the amazingly energetic dance of the entire cast on a platform and had assumed he was maybe choreographing rather than taking part. My persistence on the second occasion was rewarded with some of the most outstanding fight-dance sequences I have seen at close quarters since, in a warehouse in Wapping, Mephistoles battled an angel, in a milk bar in Punchdrunk's Faust. Using an old American car to clamber on and jump from, Mary and Dwayne dance a sexual dance of seduction and raunchy excitement followed by a fight between the two men, competitors for the girl. These images are unforgettable and seen at very close quarters. The black masked ushers are there to keep us safe but it feels dangerous by proxy.
From the Bar Room and the Saddlery and the Drugstore with its roller skating waitress, we move out into the desert where one dancer conveys the sandstorm and the wilderness, only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who wraps him in a cloak of darkness and takes him back to a bath to wash off the sand. In between we look into the trailers where the cast live, read the life history letters or keep ready to walk quickly off in pursuit of a passing actor, recognisable because they wear no mask.
Punchdrunk's performances are part art installation as detailed rooms full of clues can be discovered. This show is on four or more floors (I lost count) and in the basement are the detailed maquettes of some of the scenes we find upstairs. In one room there is a singer singing the Shangri-Las' "Remember - Walking in the Sand" and in the bar, live music acts, where you can take off your mask and buy a cold beer.
This latest production, in an old Paddington Post Office building, Temple Studios, is a vast undertaking with so much space that the audience can get lost inside the building and it never feels crowded. You often edge along a dark space with only the soundtrack to guide you towards the light.
If you like continuity then I recommend that you stay with one actor and follow that person's narrative but whatever you do, don't do what I did on the first occasion and largely miss the experiences outside the studio gates. Extra tickets have been put on sale recently and the National Theatre website and Box Office are handling the sales. If you haven't seen Punchdrunk before, you will be amazed. If you have seen them, you will know that this is the most idiosyncratic, original, theatrical experience.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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