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It struck me that the immersive dramatic experience “The Drowned Man” by Punchdrunk and the English National Theatre reminded me of a gaggle of Valleys girls scurrying after brawling young men on a wild friday night in Cardiff; powerless to intervene but attention glued, nonetheless, passionately, to the action. The production was staged in a dark, smoky and noisy world created in a disused warehouse near Paddington Station, on three floors with dozens of rooms and spaces to be explored by the bemused audience participants, each wearing an identical (and rather uncomfortable) full face mask. Those keen on a linear narrative found themselves rushing after their main character of choice from space to dramatic space; anonymous and impotent.
Temple Studios – the fictional setting for the performance – is a long closed film studio redolent of mustachioed matinée idols, rebels without causes and the colourful world of black and white cinema, in which two versions of the classic Woyzech story of cuckolds and their fatal revenge is played out in a million scenes by luvvies doing what they do best.
At the heart of it all is a real bar serving real drinks for real money, and the high point of the experience – a real band playing real, sincere, complex, rich music.
This world sits, effectively, on the edge of perception, deepened by the duality of what is, probably, the interplay of a story of actors in a studio with the story of characters on a screen. As an art installation it prompts questions about the role that elements within settings play, especially when you are (inevitably) not around to see the action that is meant to be enacted in that space. The dramatic presence is palpable as a combined result of the acting that sporadically occurs (oh look, there’s something going on over there, lets join the gaggle), and the intentions of the set designers, elevated by the ambient nature of the audience’s perception – making places, not just the appearance of place. The wonderful little storecupboard where a locker looks like a shrine, the dressing rooms taken to excess, the hovel of caravans, two chapels and a string of shops and bars.
Alienation is maintained by the drone of rather poor quality noise, occasionally punctuated by music and a composed series of ambient sound which makes all dialogue indistinct or even inaudible, making the dramatic experience, effectively, that of mime - or the silent cinema.
The ‘place’ that is made, resides as much in the mind as in the warehouse – there are constant visual reminders of the base building’s nature which serve to reinforce the alienation and the temporary nature of the setting. Not having a continuity of performance makes this effect stronger – the ‘world’ is what it is that you are exploring, not just the physical space, with echoes of actions from long forgotten films and late nights dozing on the sofa.
The performances were much about physicality – choreographed movement, dance, tumbling and a tinge of melodrama. Little room, though, for wit, language or abstract evocation. The place was the ‘thing’ and the players animated the scenes very effectively, playing out the tired clichés and the primitive dramas of the street. Revealing the narrative was therefore entirely a matter for the audience’s participation.
The bar served as a foil to the film set all around it – the beating heart of a world weary body – and the exquisite nimbleness of the band, put the heaviness of the ambient drone, and the atmosphere it created, into stark contrast. The sheer life and vigour of the bar made the three floors of sets more brooding and ambivalent, so that remerging (and donning the mask again) was through a widened gap of perception.
Whilst the lack of variety in the droning ambient noise and the narrowness of approach to the set design may have been entirely intended, the ‘place’ it created was rich and infinitely variable. The search for the revealed narrative is a valid artistic quest howsoever initiated, and our continuing quest is for a glimpse of those linkages between the complex inner places in our deepest of hearts. It may even be the purpose of life – that and good music.