The brilliant performance group Punchdrunk with The National Theatre have taken over an abandoned sorting office next to Paddington for their first London show in six years and transformed four storeys of it into a gigantic mind-altering labyrinth of an old movie studio: Temple Pictures. On arrival you’re fitted with a mask and told not to talk, then let loose to go anywhere in the building, rather than sitting in the stalls of a theatre for three hours you are roaming about interacting and you need comfy shoes! You’re encouraged to abandon your companions and head off on your own and open your eyes and let the tale unfold for you on whatever path you take.
A synopsis is handed out on entry that tells you The Drowned Man involves parallel stories, based on Buchner’s Woyzeck, of love and destruction. In one the impoverished William murders the faithless Mary, while in the other the ferocious Wendy kills the errant Marshall….but what tale you see is up to you and what conclusion you make is up to you.
A group of us were put in a lift all wearing our freaky Faust style masks and thrown out on different levels, my partner in crime Lady C and I were dropped off in the town with realistic shops and a fountain with real water which the actors danced a ballet style dance to express their story with water splashing everywhere you could go right up to the items they left when they ran off, including a key which seemed to keep reappearing in the different snippets I saw. When the actors run off you can follow them if you wish but Lady C and I decided to explore the town and came across a shop with saddles and leathers and the smell was intense, then the diner with 60s phone booths and remember you can touch anything and everything but you cannot talk so you have to hope you are poking the right person in a white mask if you want to point something out!
As you wander around the innards of the building you come across scenes furnished in fascinating detail designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns. In some places you encounter haunting smells especially in a medical lab which I believe has an autopsy style scene but I am glad I missed that as I was scared already in the dark!
Visually the production is a spectacular success. The tapestry of sets is wondrous and the diligence and attention to detail taken in bringing each to life is extraordinary. Punchdrunk’s almost forensic preparation in the sets is the real strength of this production, leading it such an air of intensity and authenticity. There is great excitement to be had in investigating every nook and cranny of a town house or a movie set. The textures underfoot are always changing too from wood, sawdust and even sand. The metamorphosis of the set and the scenery around you is relentless and fascinating.
With a cast of 40 as you explore the murky, maze-like venue, you often find yourself completely alone, nervously opening doors to discover fresh wonders and the music playing gets your heart racing as you turn a corner and downstairs in one level of the movie studio I found myself alone in a room which had red string with names on it and I started to freak out thinking “what if my name is on there!”
The biggest thrill for me were the dance numbers such as one staged on the bonnet and roof of a clapped-out red Studebaker, how the cast don’t get injured I will never know with each actor throwing the other around and you could hear the thump on the bonnet! Another dance sequence in a rodeo style bar with the townsfolk was very entertaining and turned into a ballet/hoedown punch-up! And a wonderful find was Studio 3 which had a bar where you could remove your mask and…..TALK! The bar is functioning (you need cash) and it had a live band and some great singing from the cast at a movie wrap party which you became part of at Temple Studios. It was nice to have a sit down after walking around for 2 hours and discuss the things we had seen and only imagine what we would come across next!
The downfalls for me would be the number of people in the building who push and shove wanting to follow a particular character which can be annoying as you try to watch a scene and then have someone run into you because they want to see something else and then you loose the actor you were following! Also at the end every audience member is in one section and I don’t know how many people are normally allowed in but the night I was there it did feel very claustrophobic with high numbers watching the finale.
Punchdrunk have created something very magical and each person will have had a different experience, which is the point of it and if you embrace the experience you will get more from it and remember the movies turn us all into guilty spectators of other people’s lusts and this show allows you witness all the guilty pleasures while hiding behind a mask you can be anybody in this seedy movie world.
The show is on till December and it is a piece of theatrical magic, just wander around, be confused, be scared and be amazed.
31 London Street