Moments after being pushed from a lift arriving at Temple Studios, I am pulled into a secret room and led down an ever-narrowing corridor by a man who seductively whispers a story of glamour and betrayal in my ear, drawing me closer and closer before warning me with widened, terrified eyes that all is not as it seems. Good, I think, because when you’re at the scene of a new Punchdrunk show that is exactly what you want to hear.
Staged in the site-specific company’s biggest venue to date, a disused sorting office next to Paddington Station, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable mixes Georg Büchner’s famously ambiguous work Woyzeck with a story of infidelity and scorned lovers played out at the debauched, mysterious Temple Studios in its final-ever days of filming.
Wearing the company’s now iconic mask, we are invited to explore these parallel stories across the vast building’s four storeys, chasing – quite literally at times – the disjointed narrative, dropping in and out of the murderous story at different points as you discover scenes waiting around every gloomy corner or red-lit stairwell.
Without the white masks that conceal audience members’ identities, allowing them to become uninhibited voyeurs, the performers are instantly recognisable, their presence haunting the building as if they are a collection of ghosts continually reliving their final days. With minimal dialogue, they interact quietly with one and other, their voices often drowned out by the constant, ominous, atmospheric soundtrack, which switches from filmic epic scores to crackling 1930s love songs.
More important than the snatches of dialogue you hear is the movement, with the experience full of balletic, brutal pieces monopolising every detail-packed room. From a lonely dance atop a dilapidated trailer to a violent duet on a porch and a scene from a film in which the producer’s menacing voice booms out directing the actors as if they were puppets under his spell, many of the pieces experienced on your journey push the cast to their physical limits, the hypnotic and often trippy performances leaving you entranced.
With an immersive production such as this, it would be a shame to give too much away, but snippets of the story I witnessed included an erotically charged audition, an awkward birthday party, gory murders, a shooting that is not what it first seemed, medical experiments, the moment a friendship is brutally ended and a drag act that takes audience participation too far.
In each room, from a dusty grocery store filled with vintage canned peas to a wardrobe department stacked with 1940s dresses, an office concealing a book of escorts on one of its messy desks to a modest house with beds left unmade, every inch is filled with detail. If you open a rusty tobacco tin you are sure to find tobacco, a typewriter will be filled with call sheets for the starlets you meet on your way and said starlets’ dressing tables will be adorned with love notes and lipstick.
It is this detail that exists even when you scratch beneath the surface mixed with its heady, sexy trademark atmosphere that makes the Punchdrunk experience. Just one tip, make sure to journey the show alone, allowing yourself to make every decision solo, free to run after whatever character you choose and open whichever door strikes you as interesting. Just don’t worry too much about missing out on whatever action the streams of people rushing in the other direction are chasing; enter fully into the production’s exploratory spirit and your own experience is sure to reap its own rewards.
Tickets are still available for the The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, which is booking until the end of the year, from the National Theatre website.