Punchdrunk and the Cinematic Theatre

The Drowned Man
The Drowned Man (© Photo by Pari)

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

Format: Theatre

Production: Punchdrunk / National Theatre

Location: Temple Studios

Now booking until 30 December 2013

National Theatre website

Recent years have seen the mediums of theatre and cinema become closer than ever before: while the two have always had crossovers, the results have been hit and miss. But as theatre tries to reach out to an even wider audience, with National Theatre Live broadcasting across cinemas in the UK, and established directors such as Danny Boyle taking charge of theatrical productions, these events are becoming more and more commonplace.

The National Theatre has always taken risks under the direction of Nicholas Hytner: Boyle’s interpretation of Frankenstein was a huge success, and not only brought in a different audience who might not have been regular theatregoers, but also employed cinematic special effects and tricks to create a show that could travel beyond the stage. However, it seems that the National Theatre is now willing to take this idea even further.

One theatre company has always blurred the boundaries between cinema and theatre. Since its conception in 2000, Punchdrunk has been using cinematic language to tell stories within a theatrical setting, creating an all-immersive experience. Punchdrunk shows differ from the usual theatregoing experience: the audience and the performers are not separated – there are no seats and no stage per se. Instead, the audience explores at their own speed and interest whatever the setting may be: a dilapidated hotel in New York, the cavernous nooks and crannies of Battersea Arts Centre, and even a disused post office. Within these unusual locations, the company creates a story that is non-linear and perhaps cryptic, but a story nonetheless.

Take, for example, The Masque of the Red Death (2007-8), where the Battersea Arts Centre was turned into chambers of tableaux, all inspired by the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. The audience, given and encouraged to wear masks throughout the performance, explored the rooms at their own speed, following performers, looking for secrets, and culminating in a lavish, grand ball where the Red Death finally held inimitable dominion over all.

The joy and delight of the show comes from allowing the audience a sense of freedom that theatre doesn’t usually provide. As the audience members examine, investigate and engage, they create their own story, putting together the elaborate pieces of a puzzle. By deconstructing the structure of a play, Punchdrunk allows for return visits and multiple interpretations. Just as the images on a cinema screen can be open to many interpretations, so Punchdrunk’s productions leave an open ending for those keen to look further.

Another example of Punchdrunk wholeheartedly embracing cinematic tropes was seen in their hugely successful show Sleep No More (2003) – the story of Macbeth, disfigured and re-interpreted with references to Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lynch and even Nolan thrown in. While theatre relies heavily on the spoken word, Sleep No More was completely silent. Neither the cast nor the audience spoke, and the audience was told to never take off their masks. Entering the fictional McKittrick Hotel, they explored the rooms and the corridors, encountering silent groups of actors interpreting scenes: crushing medicine, embracing, fighting and sometimes dancing.

As Punchdrunk’s success continues to rise, the company has worked on a grander and grander scale. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is their most ambitious work yet. Working with the National Theatre for the first time, the company has taken over a gigantic disused post office in Paddington, turning it into, among other things, an old Hollywood studio. The story is loosely based on Woyzeck, but as with every Punchdrunk production, not much of the original material remains. What now appears are loose threads which the audience has to piece together to understand.

Being their most openly cinematic work for a long time, The Drowned Man also represents a further opportunity for the company to explore their cinematic ambitions. By placing the audience in the role of the camera, they create a unique and individual ‘film’ for each member of the audience. And the genius of using Woyzeck – an unfinished story that can be re-interpreted many times – allows them to twist the material to further utilise their medium.

While site-specific theatre is nothing unfamiliar, the lengths Punchdrunk go to resemble more the obsessive location scouting by film productions than the usual stage play. The Drowned Man is the result of six years of research – and patience. Their sets, which can take more than one visit to discover, are minutely detailed. As a spectacle, the shows are nothing short of breathtaking. However, there’s also something alienating about the company, too. Stories of audience members feeling exasperated are all too common: the cryptic, momentary nature of the productions mean that many important scenes can be easily missed, and given that the tickets are not cheap, this can end up being a huge turn-off for the casual theatregoer. Unlike with cinema, people are not afforded the freedom to take home a DVD of the show to investigate in their own time. It is a highly unique, highly individual and sometimes very difficult experience.

But while the visual arts try to re-invent themselves, threatened on all sides by cookie-cutter mediocrity, it is incredibly heartening to see someone taking the huge risks that allow us to discover more intimate details in the very nature of the mediums we know. Punchdrunk may stumble from time to time, but their approach to melding cinema with theatre throws up tantalising possibilities for both worlds, which is not something to be sniffed at.

Evrim Ersoy

Watch the trailer for The Drowned Man: