The Drowned Man, Punchdrunk

When you step into Temple Studios it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and as you wait for an actor to jump out as you peer around corners, it feels more like you’ve stepped into The London Dungeon than into a show. This is my first experience of Punchdrunk’s highly acclaimed site-specific work — and it certainly is an experience.

The audience enters the building via a lift, manned by an actress exuding Hollywood glamour; already you grasp that, although you’re in control of the path your journey takes, you’re under the power of a set of characters who are dangerously charismatic, egotistical, manipulative and tortured. There are several different intertwining storylines that generally result in characters screwing one another over: you can choose to follow particular characters around incessantly, or switch, or stray from the beaten track.

Punchdrunk is able to offer the audience such freedom because of its immense attention to detail. Significantly, it’s not all about the glamour of bygone days — although you can play around on film sets and try on costumes in dressing rooms, you can equally visit a trailer park or seedy motel. On the top floor there is an extremely surreal desert-like setting, inhabited by things resembling suited-up scarecrows; in the basement, the chessboard flooring clearly marks out dirty gameplay. If it weren’t such an engaging space, it might be frustrating that the design poses more questions than it answers. You could spend hours reading through postcards and noseying through drawers, and the plot just thickens: for example, I filtered through some of the studio mail and found an envelope with a note enclosed, reading: “you can go to hell barefoot’. That’s just plain creepy — or perhaps it tells me I shouldn’t be reading someone else’s mail. This sense of something unsettling that exists beneath the perfectly applied make-up is present in the recurring images of blunt scissors and crosses, and the Temple Studios’ logo of a horse: designers Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns create atmosphere in the minutest details. This is enhanced by a brilliantly selected soundtrack from Stephen Dobbie, which informs your heart how quickly to beat when you come and go in the different spaces.

I did my best to see everything, yet as I made my way out I still noticed things I’d missed in the maze of sets. More than that, I missed what the main plot line was — if there was one. And yet that’s not necessarily a negative thing; it was engaging to be able to piece together the puzzle from the information I had, and the attention you can pay to relationships between the characters felt gloriously voyeuristic. Added to this, there’s very little dialogue in the piece beyond the ominous voice of the director, or the voiceovers played during filming scenes. The focus is on illustrating the scene physically. This is explored inventively, on rollerblades or in fight scenes for example, and Maxine Doyle’s choreography is endlessly exciting to watch. The piece is inspired by Buchner’s classic play Woyzeck, which is famously unfinished and fragmented in form. Yet The Drowned Man significantly shares more with the parallel themes of social mobility, madness and jealousy than it does with the plot — although the final face-off does echo the ending of Woyzeck, and rounds your interpretation of the piece.

The vignettes that are presented toe the line between what’s real and what’s fiction, bringing those familiar black and white dramas to life with a sense of style, yet making you wonder how much ‘drama’ permeates real life. There isn’t an actor who fails to inhabit their role and express themselves from tip to toe, and most noticeably through their eyes. The Drowned Man is fluidly produced with production values of the highest order. Directors Doyle and Barrett have made this theatre as literal as possible: it’s like stepping into an impossible world. The only issue I have is this: it’s supposed to be “A Hollywood Fable, which implies I should learn a lesson from attending — yet all I want is to venture into Punchdrunk’s world all over again.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is playing at Temple Studios until 30 December. For tickets and more information, see the Punchdrunk website.