Review: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

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I am kneeling in a locked, murky room in Temple Studios, alone except a rugged Latino man who is daubing clay on my forehead, whilst staring fervently into my eyes. He slowly washes my hands, kissing my palm, and makes it clear I should perform the same ritual on him. Next comes a voodoo doll, and bread pulled apart to reveal a tarot card inside. Sinister violin music builds to a crescendo around us.  Finally he pulls me up, embraces me, and whispers: ‘They build their own gallows. Two will die.’ And, in a flash, he is gone.

The only thing predictable about Punchdrunk, the production company, is that no two experiences with them are alike, and mine was certainly unusual. The company pioneers immersive theatre – they’ve built a world, a labyrinth of rooms five floors high, impeccably furnished down to the last lipstick-stained handkerchief, not to mention secret passages and trap doors. As an audience member you’re given a white mask and told to explore the glamorous studios of 1950s Hollywood, and the dystopic shanty towns and sleazy saloons of the dangerous world outside.

The plot – two parallel cuckolded relationships – is simplistic, and the dialogue is weak, if not a little pretentious. Instead the story of lust and jealousy is passionately told through physical theatre and dance – a woman throws herself up against a sand dune, and sensuously slips down into the arms of a tango, or contorts around a caravan’s door before inviting her lover in. The betrayed, enraged William rolls and flips across the bar to spring into a wild fight with his wife’s lover, which escalates into a fanatic country dance. The sheer precision alone is breathtaking – the diner girl’s roller skates almost slice my leg as she’s whirled around. And, sometimes, you’re beckoned away for a one on one encounter.

In a world of dwindling Twitter-fed attention spans, 3D cinema, and the fifteen minutes of fame phenomenon, Punchdrunk know what they’re doing by appropriating the visual magnificence of companies like Complicité, but inviting you as a participant, not an observer, to a show of constant gratification. Is it possible to fit the puzzle together and create an exhaustively intricate tale, or do a huge series of dazzling distraction techniques hide the fact that under the glamour there is not much there? Either way the mystery is exciting enough that people are going dozens of times. All style and not much substance, perhaps. But what a lot of style.

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