In case you are not with the programme, Punch Drunk is the Godfather when it comes to immersive and promenade theatre companies in London town. When I first experienced their production of Faust in their early days, before they had attained such heady heights of notoriety, I was absolutely over awed. Wondering around a Limehouse warehouse, stumbling across Faust and Mephistopheles, discovering alchemic laboratories and musty libraries was quite simply a magical experience. The world created by Punch Drunk was all encompassing and I was entirely transported.
Sadly with notoriety and fame the experience of PunchDrunk has diminished. Much as I enjoyed the visual feast that was Punch Drunk’s transformation of the BAC into the interior of an Alan Edgar Poe Gothic tale for “Masque of the Red Death” (their 2007 production); the lack of context and narrative that came from trying to combine the stories of 13 Poe short stories with very similar themes meant I soon got bored. You try to distinguish between the legions of the pale faced and slightly consumptive without being a Poe scholar and quite frankly once you have seen one gothic bride floating down a stair case you have seen them all!
One Gothic Bride too many…
Photo: Sarah Lee
However, I digress, what I really want to tell you about is my most recent Punch Drunk experience with my glamourous companion for the evening Miss Mercy. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable was a mystery from the start and did not get any less mysterious as the evening progressed. What the marketing did not give away was that the evening was also going to be an experience of life under a totalitarian regime!
What first irritated me was that you had to hand your handbag (no matter what the size) at the cloakroom. I am not comfortable being separately from my valuables for any length of time, particularly when the cloakroom in question is utterly chaotic. Secondly, they had a cash bar so you were expected to accommodate your cash despite the fact your bag had now been removed and ladies summer dresses aren’t noted for their pockets. Thirdly some very shouty people shoved you around like cattle before you even entered the performance space.
The visual impact was quite overwhelming. The enormous four floors of an old building near Paddington had been transformed into a 1950′s film studios, the fictional “Temple Studios” complete with seedy trailer park, desert wilderness and sinister basements. It was beautiful; eerie. The atmosphere was palpably unsettling. The attention detail and the intricacy were incredible. However, throughout the whole of the performance I did not have a clue what was going on or what the point of anything was. And after a while this haunting world started to feel rather empty, just so much superficial ephemera.
The Drowned Man: Punch Drunk created an eerily beautiful world of no meaning or substance (or handbags for that matter) Photo: Travis Hodges
However, the totalitarian theme continued with enthusiasm and zeal! Everyone had to wear white masks, which didn’t seem to make the slightest bit of sense in a 1950’s film studio context. You weren’t permitted to speak or seemingly interact with your surroundings in anything other than a manner controlled and specified by the powers that be. Getting too relaxed was certainly against the rules, as came apparent when Miss Mercy and I decided to take a seat in a couple of battered looking arm chairs. OK Miss Mercy might have eaten an orange and I may have made a few pretend calls on the 50’s style telephone, but we mistakenly thought that by removing the usual confines of the stage Punch drunk were exploring the fluidity and shift in power dynamics this creates between actors, audience and setting. Clearly not. After a short while an actor appeared and started shouting at us. It seemed that his displeasure went above and beyond his role. Particularly when he made a lunge at me. Seeing as I wasn’t appropriately attired for a round of fistycuffs I thought I’d better get up. He then grabbed Miss Mercy who informed him she didn’t wish to be assaulted at which point he marched off in a huff.
The best bit was the bar, which had a very good Jazz singer. The finale was awful. It involved us being crammed into an over heated room to watch the “film cast” i.e. the actors have a party which we were not invited too. However, it was a fairly torturous experience and I suppose totalitarian regimes are all for that sort of thing! I recently talked to someone who knows the director of punch drunk who explained he has a vision of creating a dream like experience of which the audience member is merely a passive observer. To me however it seems madness to let the audience invade the stage and then attempt to entirely negate their presence completely. If you want audience passivity stick to the traditional theatre/ stage arrangement!
One thing is for certain; me and my handbag will be certainly staying away from the next Punch drunk show!