Thursday, 22 August 2013

Punchdrunk - all mask and no knickers?

A somewhat belated but nonetheless sincere blog entry this time about Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man which has been running in 'Temple Studios' (near Paddington Station) all Summer.

I can honestly say that previous to this I was one of the thousands who have heard many a tale of Punchdrunk's work but never actually experienced any of it. I had watched in delight as dazed and confused Americans left their performance of Sleep No More in 2010 wondering what had just happened to them and debating whether it was really 'theatre' at all. Of course since Punchdrunk this type of immersive theatre is becoming all the more commonplace. Only this year I cajoled Ben into coming to Dream Think Speak's 'In the Beginning was the End' at Somerset House. Some companies have merely taken elements - Headlong's 'Decade' used parts of this genre to lift their programme.

St Mary's has a Punchdrunk connection too. Maxine Doyle, Artistic Director and choreographer, used to work at St Mary's, work shopping some of their early material there. 

To be honest, ignorance is normally bliss. But having even just these small bits of knowledge meant I approached this with some caution. I longed for it not to be a cliched experience - all gimmick and no substance. All mask and no knickers, if you will. 

We arrived and went in, mask donned, bag checked, rules read and intentions to follow them - good.

As we entered the 'temple studios' I certainly wasn't disappointed by the surroundings. Inside this abandoned warehouse I was greeted by a trailer park, forest, saloon bar, a myriad of shops and warehouses as well as the gates inside the film studios. Although poking around someone's home at first seemed out of order, even frightening at times the mask did give you a sense of distance. Urging you to keep looking, prying and exploring.

After 20 minutes of fumbling in the dark there's a sudden rush and thrill of excitement as you see your first character - In my case Mary, a girl hoping for work in the studios who is having an affair with the elusive Dwayne. As she passed I felt compelled to follow, not realising the hundreds of other who were doing the same. I watched as she met Dwayne and began their relationship.

Throughout the show you were constantly being met with choices - who to follow or whether to follow at all. There is a constant sense that you're missing something going on somewhere. When Ben and I lost each other during the show I felt a little saddened to hear all the experiences he had had that I had missed out on. 

As the building became more packed and the various performance strands more compelling the masks did lead to another type of anonymity - people pushing others out of the way, looking for the best seat - the social airs and graces of politeness had seemed to disappear. There were times where I felt for those unable to move quickly or likely to be trampled on by an over-enthusiastic onlooker. But due to the masks and the no talking rule I also seemed incapable to help. Throughout the show I had an internal monologue running through my head about how inconsiderate everyone was and how I could somehow do more.....

So, was it gimmicky?? To be honest, a little. But the gimmicks we're what seemed to make it. I became less and less interested in the choreography, or the artistry or the execution. I became engrossed with why would happen next and making sure I could watch it. The 'drama' of the dance performances were good but dwarfed by comparison to the moments where I and everyone else scuttled about desperate to find the next bit of the action. Was the actual performance any good? Probably. But I can't remember any of it. I do remember being bundled into a lift, being stared out by the gate guard, reading a woman's diary and getting rained on. 

Does it matter? I'm not entirely sure. I certainly don't feel like I went to the theatre, but I don't feel like I saw any either. But maybe that's what it's all about??