If the great German playwrights of the past were living in our time, would they be writing for the theatre? Probably not. I expect Goethe would be making blockbuster movies for Hollywood, while Schiller might want to create a television series like David Simon’s The Wire.
Might Georg Buchner in 2013 be hard at work in the video-game industry? Maybe not. But if you want to discover what it would be like if the revolutionary dramatist had written for Xbox instead of for the stage, you can get an idea here in London.
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is an update of Woyzeck, Buchner’s unfinished play, that swallows the audience wholly into its world. You can do shots with Woyzeck – called William here – as he furiously spies on his girlfriend dancing with another man at a country-and-western bar. Or you can wander into his perverse doctor’s office, root through the desk drawers and eat as many peas as you want. Or, well, there are thousands of other adventures you can get up to. It’s up to you.
This is the latest massive creation by Punchdrunk, an exciting British theatre company that has become insanely popular with young audiences in London and New York over the past decade for works that are like the Grand Theft Auto of immersive theatre.
Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle co-direct the shows: Barrett takes the lead on the incredibly detailed designs, while Doyle choreographs. Their biggest hit, Sleep No More – a show based on Macbeth, with an aesthetic inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca – has been running for three years now in New York. (On the side, Doyle and Barrett design shows for corporations; they’re creating a live-action prequel to the first-person shooter Resistance 3 for Sony PlayStation, for instance.)
The Drowned Man, the most elaborate parallel universe they’ve built to date, takes place on a 18,600-square-metre set that sprawls over multiple floors of a former mail-sorting office near Paddington Station.
It has two separate areas that audiences can explore over the course of a three-hour performance. First there’s Temple Studios, a 1960s movie-making complex complete with sound stages, artist trailers and costume rooms with gossipy actresses putting on make-up in their underwear. Then, on the other side of the studio gates, there is a poor American desert town complete with a run-down trailer park, an old-fashioned single-screen cinema and the aforementioned honky-tonk. (The dissolute atmosphere is informed by Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel about the fringes of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust.)
Two stories inspired by Woyzeck take place simultaneously in each world, but don’t worry: The action repeats three times in an evening, so you have three chances to experience it. It’s like you’re Super Mario with multiple lives to squander.
Inside the studio, you may stumble across a struggling actress named Wendy, who begins to lose her mind after she sees her boyfriend Marshall locked in a romantic embrace with a starlet at a wrap party. She eventually stabs him to death with scissors atop a wood pile in the back lot of the studio.
Meanwhile, outside the studio, William loses his girlfriend Mary to a drugstore cowboy, then loses his mind. He lures Mary deep into the desert – a floor of the building entirely covered in sand – to a motel called the Red Moon. The name recalls a famous pair of lines delivered by the characters they mirror in Buchner’s play.
Marie: The moon is rising. Look how red it is.
Woyzeck: Like blood on iron.
It doesn’t end happily, of course. As an audience member, you can move back and forth between Wendy’s and William’s darkly lit universes or stay in just one. Or you can hang out with any of the dozens of secondary characters, such as a soda girl who roller skates and flirts with travelling salesmen. (I wouldn’t, though; it was boring.) Indeed, if you want to, you can ignore the actors entirely and spend hours rooting through letters and photo albums in drawers and shelves. In a mail room, I came across a package, unwrapped it and found a knight from a chessboard that now sits on my desk at home as a souvenir.
Many theatre creators have attempted to mount shows where the audience is active and involved, but more often than not those shows feel forced and awkward – like playing charades with your aunt.
Punchdrunk has found two ways to make this format better than just a haunted house.
First, they make the audience disappear in plain sight by having everyone who enters wear a plain white mask. This makes you lose your inhibitions and feel as if you are at a party attended by ghosts – or perhaps you’ve wandered into the orgy scene from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. (You can’t actually have sex with the actors, though – or, at least, I don’t think you can, as I didn’t try.) The performers mostly ignore the white-masked audience members, though, occasionally, as when William and Wendy begin to go mad, they may suddenly look you right in the eye. It is an unsettling experience to feel as if you are a delusion.
And second, there is almost no dialogue from the performers – they communicate mostly through movement and a very physical, almost violent style of dance. Doyle’s choreography is more like parkour, as the characters climb the walls or swing from tree branches or roll around together on the roof and in the back seat of a beat-up old Chevy. If you’re in the way, you will be pushed aside.
The Drowned Man – which is currently selling tickets though February – isn’t the first time that Punchdrunk has been inspired by a gloomy German play. Its first big success was an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust in 2006, another collaboration with the National Theatre that took place over five floors of a warehouse in Wapping in East London. That was my introduction to the company, and I have been a fan ever since I was almost kicked in the head by Mephistopheles as he swung from a rope hanging from the ceiling.
The company’s come under some criticism in the past year for using unpaid interns in New York and a suggested stagnancy to their artistic vision – the backlash is on. But I’m still amazed by Punchdrunk’s work, and The Drowned Man is its most inventive show yet.
Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck