The Drowned Man, National Theatre until 13 December 2013


Deep into the realms of horror theatre, this is certainly the maddest live performance experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve taken LSD at a circus so I know what I’m talking about.
Set over four floors of a former postal sorting office, Punchdrunk Productions have transformed the building into the fictional Temple Studios, set at the time of a wrap party for a movie that is still being made. As an audience member you wander around the never ending corridors, into creepy rooms and sets where a bit the story will suddenly spring up on you like a snippet from a newspaper, before disappearing off into the darkness.
Let’s do the short spoiler free version of this: it’s long, three hours long, it barely makes a scrap of sense, is completely disorienting and you get a sweaty nose.
It is also the craziest thing in London right now and if you want to see what it’s like to enter someone else’s nightmare then I’d go and see it while you can. Oh, and don’t read anymore of this review as I am going to hit you with lots of spoilers from here on in, not that it will really give anything away because in some respects The Drowned Man is like the Hollywood stars it portrays: completely recognisable but also impossible to really, fully understand. However this is part of its weird charm.
So here we go. Upon arrival my fine friend Mariam and I had to hand over our bags and were given a white mask like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale. All the audience had to wear the mask, it separated us from the performers, but also gave us a weird view of the action, looking through the holes of the masks (that were like skulls with beaks) we crowded around the different events like ghosts watching the living. Mind you it felt like the performers were the ghosts. Starting with the old fashioned Studio executive taking us in a lift down to the basement, talking like someone from a hundred years ago, he was like a spirit out of The Shining. Then as people left the lift, our man had a change of heart, slammed the door shut on them and took the rest of us up to the top floor where the tale began.
Set in the late fifties/early sixties the story, if you could call it that, started in a dust bowl of a mid-west town in the dead end of America. It was like wandering around a dream, there was a forest, but no sky, a trailer park, but no dwellers, then a girl and a boy ran past an old automobile and started a terrific row. Okay, so I must tell you at this point they argued through the medium of dance, and I’m not saying it wasn’t a bit pretentious, because it jolly well was. However, only a few minutes in you are already so freaked out by the mist and the darkness, the wild soundtrack playing all round you and the masked, terrified looking audience that a bit of dance is light relief.
Before you know it you are off again, going in your own direction, discovering dusty old empty rooms,  and then coming across a girl in her rotten old bedroom, putting on a pretty dress for some future, disastrous romantic meeting. Mariam and I stumbled (and there is a fair amount of stumbling, it’s bloody dark) into a bar room brawl. Stand back or you might get an incomprehensible madman landing on you. This open plan approach to seeing a play is to theatre what Grand Theft Auto is to videogames. Sure there is a main plot somewhere along the way but whether you find it all is another matter.
Down the stairs onto the next floor you find yourself witnessing the behind the scenes wheelings and dealings of a Hollywood studio, as starlets and has-beens mix with wannabes and sharks willing to become a success at any price. Things certainly are getting weirder here, and they were pretty nuts in the first place. Now you feel you have stumbled into the outtakes of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where extreme sex and lounge music are the norm.
The further down the building you go, the creepier and more surreal things become: a room marked “Prosthetics” is adorned with hanging bits of fake flesh, a vast check-floored hall is the home of satanic rituals involving red velvet curtains and baseball bats. In fact, as Mariam pointed out, even the areas where no action actually happens feel like you’ve entered the room just as some one has left. You are encouraged to opens drawers, look through racks of costumes, sit in empty cinemas. Time and again we’d come across some freaked-out audience member, lost from their friends in all the dark mayhem, reading an old diary, looking for clues to the bigger picture like a shadowey detective. The attention to detail is incredible. I think the biggest clue I found to what the story was was in a small, dirty little room off from the main action down a dead end in the cellar. From the ceiling hung vein-like bits of red string. On each vein was a small piece of paper with a name written on it: stars having given up their identity and their souls for the Hollywood dream.
Mariam and I managed to stick together against the odds, despite seeing other audience members being being dragged off through a door, never to be seen again. Or at least I think never again, in the masks we all looked the same. There was a break of sorts somewhere in the middle, where we came across a time warp bar, serving wine and Budweiser while glamorous singers intoxicated us with their dreamy melodies. There was even an ending which I think made some kind of sense, but as we stumbled out blinking into the real world we could not be sure how long had we’d been part of this experience. Was it three hours? Was it longer? In fact I would recommend leaving your watch behind and just getting lost in the nightmare. It’s not for everyone, some of the eyes behind the masks looked terrified, a couple looked bored, but it’s certainly unique. As Mariam and I sat down for a much needed bite to eat afterwards we talked about The Drowned Man for a long, long time. We worked out the plot and the themes, and how all the details added to the story as a whole. Then I discovered a piece of paper in my pocket; the synopsis of the play, nothing like the story we saw! Well, it’s a different tale for everyone I suppose.
Oh and the Drowned Man himself? I think that might have been me.  The masks didn’t half make your nose drip with sweat, I felt like I was water torturing myself, which in that long, dark nightmare somehow made a lot of sense.


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