Temple Studios, Hollywood, sometime in the 1950s. We’re in a dimly lit make-up room. A stern woman pushes an actress onto a stool. She holds a light up to the actress’s face, which we see is bruised; her dress and bra soaked in blood. The actress winces as the woman applies her make-up; a darker shade on top of her already purple eye. Trickles of blood run down from her nostril and the corner of her mouth. “What’s my next scene?” she asks nervously. “You’re already in it,” snaps the woman, before dragging her out into the corridor.
We shuffle out behind them, just in time to see a grim-looking doctor drug the actress. She falls to the floor. The doctor turns and strides off one way, the sinister make-up artist the other. Who to follow? Just a couple of seconds to decide, then off we go again – pacing down dark corridors back into the narrative maze.
I’m giddy, utterly lost in the world of Punchdrunk’s latest production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. But I like it.
This was just one of hundreds of other story fragments we might have come across – short interactions, snippets of dialogue, silent dances, violent struggles or flamboyant crowd scenes. Hidden behind our compulsory white masks, under strict orders not to speak, we roam freely through a twisted, hallucinatory world. Tip-toeing “along the precipice between illusion and reality”, we witness splinters of stories unfolding, then decide what to do next. Characters and stories compete for our attention. Which are the most compelling? We vote with our feet.
Childhood forays into Choose Your Own Adventure storybooks echo in my mind, amped up with a heady shot of David Lynch. But this is all-embracing, physical, immense and intense. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Immersive theatre is one thing, but this slippery, irreverent approach to narrative is quite astonishing. My pulse and my mind are racing.
Punchdrunk has created a vast yet intricate world to explore, sprawling across four floors of an abandoned postal sorting office in west London. There are the studios of Temple Pictures Ltd, with five different film sets; hair, makeup and wardrobe departments; casting offices; sound effects studios and a labyrinth of dark corridors. Then, the neon-lit town outside, with its drugstores, barbershops, saloon bars, cinema, town square and a row of shabby motel rooms. Out the back, a dark eerie wood, with a cluster of dilapidated caravans, trashcans, fires, barbed wire… Upstairs is a desert, thick sand underfoot, populated only with a congregation of scarecrows at a funeral; downstairs, a vast room with a black and white chequered floor, two dead bodies and a single red velvet bar booth. The set design is mindblowing, the level of detail unprecedented. Sights, sounds and smells engulf you at every turn.
You can go wherever you want. Open any door. Walk into any room. Climb into any caravan. Objects, letters, documents, photos all tell their own stories. You can pick them up and read them, rummage through suitcases and open drawers if you like. In one of many dressing rooms, amongst postcards, eyeshadows, cigarette boxes and hairbrushes, I find a letter from an aspiring actress to her screen idol, inviting her to come and see one of her own performances. This is just one of hundreds, even thousands, of similar invitations into parallel story worlds.
When you enter, right at the beginning, you’re handed a flyer with a short synopsis of the story on it (it’s inspired by Buchner’s fractured masterpiece, Woyzeck). In the lift on the way up, a flirtatious actress introduces the main characters through their casting shots. So every audience member knows the basic story and its protagonists, but experiences the narrative unfolding in a way that’s unique to them. And there’s so much more than the main narrative waiting to be discovered. “If you want to have the best time,” our host tells us, “then ditch your friends.”
There are infinite variables. Your experience is completely down to your own choices – which doors you open, which characters you decide to follow, how long you follow them for before another grabs your attention and takes you on a different path. How long do you stay in a space, or move on when some action outside the window pulls you away?
I find myself in a dark room with a bath in it, full of dirty water and a dripping tap. There are puddles all over the floor; I know something has happened in here. I go back three times, but it’s always empty. Just me and my imagination. It’s only talking to friends afterwards that I hear what really happened.
Some characters fascinate you and you’ll end up following them for half an hour. Others quickly bore or annoy you and you wander off elsewhere. Some audience members literally scramble through the space, jostling to keep up with the character and story thread that has drawn them in. “You have to keep your decisions impulsive, not intellectual, to really get the most out of it,” one of the actors tells me in the bar afterwards. “I’ve seen it ten times and I still haven’t seen all of it. It’s truly immense.”
Sometimes, however, it can be unsatisfying. With so many fragments to dip in and out of, the characters can be very one-dimensional. You never really get to know them, understand their motivations and what makes them tick. So you don’t build much emotional connection to them and, ultimately, don’t desperately care what happens to them.
But then maybe it just reflects real life? You’re totally immersed, walking through this world yourself – a million miles away from reading a book or sitting in a comfy theatre seat watching the story unfold in front of you. You have to work for it. There’s no omniscient narrator, or even a coherent narrative to follow. It depends on where you are, and when, as to whether you witness key narrative events or just small details, distractions and subplots. Similarly, when in real life do you ever see a whole story happen before you, from start to finish? Everyone’s perspective is different, and it’s only when someone like a writer weaves them together that we get a whole. But then when in real life do you walk into a sound effects studio to find a woman casually holding a man’s head underwater, to record the sound of him drowning?
Often the most memorable experiences like this are away from the main action. Three of us follow a woman down a narrow corridor. Suddenly, she pulls the person in front of me through a hidden door and shuts it in my face. I try to open it, but it’s locked. That’s it. What’s happening on the other side? So many questions, so few answers.
That’s the thing. There are so few answers. And the stories keep evolving, taking on a life of their own long past the event. Everyone navigates their own path, has their own individual experiences, and then talks to their friends afterwards about what they saw, where they went and what happened to them. Sitting in the bar afterwards, you feel an overwhelming urge to go back in, to hunt down that experience the others had, to make different choices, to follow different characters, to see a different angle. Art imitating life indeed.
The Drowned Man runs until 30 December. Buy tickets here.
Watch the trailer: