Punchdrunk theatre company has been flying the flag for immersive theatre for over a decade, joining the likes of Shunt and Secret Cinema in dragging the genre from niche installations in trendy basements to marquee productions that charge £50 a ticket.
Unlike some of Punchdrunk’s peers, though, the sense of freedom in The Drowned Man is absolute. After entering through a pitch-black corridor, you feel your way to a holding room where you are handed a white Venetian mask and told not to take it off. After that… Well, it’s up to you.
If you want to spend three hours skulking in a forest, sleeping in a trailer or making sand angels in the desert, then that’s fine (although, seriously, maybe get help). Or if you’re tired and just fancy watching cabaret at the bar, that’s fine too.
The “plot” – which is outlined before you enter the performance space – follows two couples, one member of each discovering an infidelity that leads them to murder.
The first hour inspires a sense of hyper-Fomo (fear of missing out; get with it). The space is vast – a disused sorting office, spanning four stories – and there is barely a square foot without something to explore. Actors perform seemingly arbitrary tasks that interlink into a vague tapestry. As the ghost-faced audience members jostle and elbow past each other, straining to keep up with the cast (who you can recognise by the absence of masks), they become complicit in the dark twists of the narrative; ever present voyeurs, leering from windows, watching the characters as they undress, fight, cry and make love.
No doubt if you had a few days to study each room, each letter, each individual performance, you could string together a coherent narrative, but it’s impossible in three hours. In fact, you could quite easily miss the eponymous murders altogether, becoming sidetracked by the myriads of painstakingly created nooks and crannies. The thought that has gone into the minutia of every room is extraordinary – sheafs of handwritten notes lie scattered alongside dusty film-set ephemera; every surface cluttered with carefully curated nick-nacks.
The influence of film director David Lynch is deeply ingrained, from the glossy, sinister-edged Americana of the Grease-inspired musical being filmed upstairs, to the Twin Peaks-esque hick-town and the ubiquitous, growling music.
The basement is where the real horrors lurk: alongside the prosthetics and special effects are hidden-away rooms full of nightmares. One such annex, down an unassuming corridor, housed a field of rotting sunflowers. You could try to read some wider meaning into it, but, really, it’s there because it looks creepy as hell.
The sticky temperatures induced by the heat wave serve to make the whole thing even more disorientating. This is what video games will be like in the future: a full, sensory experience where you tread your own path, dwell on the aspects of the narrative that most appeal to you. I loved it; really loved it.
First published in City A.M.