The Drowned Man, at the National Theatre until Feb 23rd

The Drowned Man, at the National Theatre until Feb 23rd

Today, I went to see Punchdrunk’s current production, The Drowned Man.

The Drowned Man is not really a play. It’s a building in which a play is being performed. Two, really. Possibly more. You, as the audience, have free reign to wander the floors of the building, which represent both the maze of rooms that is the Temple Studios and the surrounding town and countryside, and over the course of your time there the characters are going though the motions of the two main stories. Both the stories are murders, one of a husband who murders her wife over an affair, one of a wife who does the same to her husband, and these stories loop around three times while you’re in the building. On top of those main stories every single character is active almost all of the time, so while you can follow any one of the “Main” characters, it’s equally rewarding – and sometimes more so – to pick another character, and just follow them. Maybe for the entire story – where does that man go after he’s had that conversation? – or just following someone who looks interesting. Or don’t follow anyone at all, just wander around opening doors, investigating rooms, reading the letters on the desks, or the scripts in the piles, or stand in one place and see what happens here…

All my friends who have gone have said how amazing they found it, so my expectations were slightly over the top when I went in. I was kind of expecting it to have been overhyped in that way things get when everyone loves them, and there are issues. Going to a peak performance means that for every main event there are a lot of audience members watching, and the ability to walk in close to the actors instead of standing in a wide circle so that everyone can see is corrupted by the way getting in closer gets you a better view, so I’d like to go when it’s slightly quieter, I think. However, the thrill of following the characters around, as they go though the effects of their actions, as they never break character, as they interact with each other. It’s glorious, and involving. Nowhere in theatre have I felt the same kind of thrill as when a character beckoned toward me and dragged me though a previously locked door on my own for a one-on-one experience. Sometimes in LARP, when it’s really at the peak, but never have I felt so personally involved in theatre.

Another gripe: Premium ticket holders are more likely to get that kind of attention. But the balance: The sets are fantastic. Almost every door can be opened, if not always by you, and every one has detail and precision. From books and scripts, to the aforementioned letters and memos. The design flickers an uneasy and unbalancing edge between the realistic and the representative, but always at a very high fidelity. Even the surreal representations of things are expressed down to examinable detail.

I saw perhaps as much as a third of the production in the three hours. In the pub with friends afterwards, I discovered the existence of rooms and characters I hadn’t even seen, though they wander around as much as everyone else. There’s so much I’d like to explore, so much on the furthest edges of the main storylines I’d like to find out more about…

It runs until Feb 23rd, so I’m going to have to plot my next visit quite soon…

If you have the ability to walk around a building for three hours in a plastic mask, if you have the mental positioning to be surprised and grabbed by the hand occasionally (they will drop and pick someone else if you resist), and if you can survive in places where the air is a bit smokey at times, and you can get to London before the 23rd February, I highly recommend using those abilities to go see Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man. Tickets from the National Theatre.