I will now attempt to tell you about The Drowned Man.
The National Theatre in that there London, have teamed up with a theatre company called Punch Drunk, and taken possession of an old Royal Mail sorting office next to Paddington station to showcase the dramatic experience that is The Drowned Man.
I won’t call it a play, because it was both less and more than that.
The idea, so Andrea told me, was to push the boundaries of the theatre experience until they break, and figuring out if it was a good thing or not.
So, we had a five o’clock start time for our experience, and were in the building for three hours.
We were taken down in groups to the basement area in a goods lift, accompanied by a man in a tuxedo who told us that we were entering the premises of a film studio, and that we would be able to see the last day of shooting of a feature film currently in production.
We had been given flyers at the entrance, which set out two other narratives, both involving a pair of jealous lovers, whose jealousy proves to be founded in reality (maybe), and whose experiences drive them to madness and finally murder.
We were also given masks that looked a bit like the one that chap wears in V for Vendetta. We had to wear them at all times while we were inside the building – presumably so that everyone could clearly see who the actors were. We were also not allowed to talk once the lift doors opened in the basement.
We were told that we could explore the building and go anywhere we wanted. We had no guides, just ourselves, shaping our own experience. We would occasionally wander across scenes being acted out in and amongst us, and could choose to follow the actors as they moved around, or not. How we understood and saw what was happening was completely up to us.
When the lift doors opened it was really, really dark. There was only the dimmest lighting to guide you. In some places there wasn’t even that, and you had to grope your way around.
There was also an intense sound track pulsing through the building. A low, thudding roar that persisted under everything and made the ground vibrate. Sometimes you could hear heart beats or a kind of rushing, breathing noise. There was also music scored over it all, which got louder when a ‘scene’ was happening.
It was extremely eerie, as we made our way around in the gloom, not knowing what we would come across, and occasionally seeing groups of masked, silent people, flitting across our path.
We walked for miles, and miles over four floors of a vast building. It was only in the last half hour of the experience that we started coming across rooms we had seen before, and even now I’m convinced there were some areas we missed altogether. It was like a labyrinth. All the windows were blacked out, so you had no real sense of where you were or how much time had passed. It was very disorienting.
The rooms were amazing. There were dressing rooms, and prosthetics and wigs rooms, sound effects rooms, store rooms full of props, whole studios full of sets from films, all ready to go. There was a canteen, and a medical room, and a board room. The whole makings of a film company were laid out to explore – but not just at surface level, every single detail had been thought of. Each room smelled different; old perfume, cigarettes, Germolene in the medical room, etc.
All the drawers were full of items that were true to the Sixties era the play was set in, letters were on doormats, type writers had scripts half typed sticking out of them. The dressing tables had opened make up palettes, powder puffs, good luck cards tucked into the mirror frames. In some rooms there were half drunk cups of coffee, as if someone had just walked out as you walked in.
And then there were the really strange rooms where there were shrines to dead film stars with flickering votive candles casting shadows across the walls and rooms with stuffed animals in, or reel to reel tape recorders just spooling endlessly.
On one floor there was an enormous loggia, about twenty or thirty feet long, with sunken pools in the floor that occasionally filled up with rain water. Walking down the steps you walked into a woodland, with real tree trunks that you could thread your way between to get to gypsy fairground tents and a ring of full sized caravans, all of which were fully kitted out and which you could go into and explore.
On another floor there was an entire main street, complete with working fountain, trickling water into the darkness. There was a bar, a diner, a motel, a toy shop, a television shop, a palm reader’s with a flickering neon sign. All of them were complete in every detail, but empty – except when the occasional scene blazed forth out of the darkness.
That was only part of that floor. There was also a church that was starting to flood and had dark side rooms with opened coffins and scary shrines draped in bunting made from narrow, pastel ribbons that looked like they’d come from baby clothes. It was extremely surreal.
Not as surreal as the very top floor though, which you came off the stairwell into pitch darkness to experience. As we trudged forwards, holding on to each other for grim death, we saw a tiny pool of light in the darkness, like one of those circles you see in a cartoon. Walking towards it we realised our feet were sliding and realised we were walking on sand, tonnes and tonnes of sand.
Stepping into the pool of light, you saw the next one, and so on until the light got a little better and you could see what looked like a church congregation, all sitting in rows of wooden chairs with their back to you. When you got closer you realised they were all straw dummies, and they were facing a body on a bier, covered in thousands of dried flowers, with just its face peeking out, and sand curling away into the darkness all around you.
The whole experience was quite amazing in all senses of the word.
The only thing that didn’t really work for me was the actual performance by the actors. Because it was effectively a promenade performance, where the actors moved through and round you, unless you were right by them it was really hard to see and hear them, and the loud music sound track made it almost impossible for me to work out what they were saying.
It was just too much of an effort to keep track of them, so we abandoned them to their fate, occasionally bumping into a scene by accident, but more content to explore our surroundings.
If you like theatrical experiments I would highly recommend it, just for the sheer audacity and scale of what they have done. Wear stout boots though, and be prepared to do a lot of walking.