Behind the Mask: A Review of ‘The Drowned Man’

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You arrive at the specified address and find only a warehouse. The fact that other people are dressed in theatre attire is the only indication that you’re in the right place. Inside, there are cement floors, fluorescent lights, and metal barricades organizing a line. You start to get nervous. Nothing suggests that this is a “lobby” of any kind, let alone one for a show that you’ve paid £50 to attend.

You’re at the front of the line. An attendant takes your ticket and gestures toward a black door, which leads you to a black room where some other attendees have already gathered. You frantically shift your gaze around the room in search of eye contact, hoping to establish some mutual recognition of the bizarreness of the situation. Before you can succeed, an attendant passes out grotesque Venetian masks. Faces vanish; where once there were strangers, now there are only ghosts. You can hear your breath as it resounds against the plastic. Soon you are herded into a large elevator, where for the first time all night, someone tells you what the hell is going on.

That someone is a svelte woman in a blue sequined evening dress. In a lazy drawl, she welcomes you to Temple Studios, where the cast and crew are shooting the last scenes of their newest film, “The Drowned Man.” Feel free to look around the studios, she tells you as the elevator descends, so long as you keep quiet. And don’t stay attached to your friends – you’ll have a better time if you just go it alone. She lets a few spectators exit the elevator. A man starts after his masked companions, but she slams the gate in his face and smirks. The elevator descends some more.

You are let off in the basement, a long hallway lined with doors. Ethereal music floats atop glossy floors, which you and the other spectators tread hesitantly. You try one of the doors; it opens onto somebody’s fully furnished office. You have enough time to skim some of their letters and hit a few keys on the typewriter before a loud groaning draws you back into the hallway. Headed toward you is an old woman, doubled over, relying on a cane to walk. You and a small group of masks pursue her as she hobbles up two flights of stairs, occasionally glancing back in horror at the warped faces behind her. She leads you to the studio’s shooting floor. You want to keep following her, but suddenly there are other scenes vying for your attention.

On your left, a petite blonde and her rugged prince are rapt in passionate dialogue atop a hill of glitter. To your right, a security guard and a secretary in horn-rimmed glasses are engaged in an intricate dance involving a flashlight and a chain-link fence. Before you, the old woman is continuing toward a dressing room draped lavishly with pearls and pink satin. And you’re not even yet aware that one floor below you, there’s an entire town, complete with staffed shops, a stocked bar, a church, a cinema, a forest, and a trailer park where many of these characters live.

Where do you choose to go?

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If this is starting to sound like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, that’s because it basically is one. But brought to life in four dimensions, the adventure becomes thrilling, and the choosing becomes real. At “The Drowned Man,” an experimental re-telling of George Büchner’s “Woyzeck” layered with many other stories, you get to determine the course of your engagement with the plot, but making a choice is no longer as easy as flipping to page 183. You have to walk – and sometimes run – to keep up with the story lines you want to see. The world is painstakingly detailed, so you can rummage through characters’ personal belongings to learn more about their backstories, but only at the expense of watching them in the present. You can try to follow one character, but your commitment will be tested as fight scenes and group dance numbers break out around every corner. You must constantly determine on-the-fly answers to questions about art that you normally wouldn’t consider at all: am I here for the story or the spectacle? is it okay for me to watch these characters have sex? are we all just hopeless voyeurs?

“The Drowned Man” is produced by Punchdrunk, the British company who shot to fame with a similarly interactive adaptation of Macbeth called “Sleep No More.” Their work is theatrical, but it is hardly theatre. “Theatre” implies a particular relation between spectator and stage, derived as it is from the Greek théatron, “a place for viewing.” This kind of immersive, site-specific experience complicates not only the singularity of place, but also the concept of viewing. By donning a mask, you are drawn into the performance. Gone is your face, the most personal thing about you. Gone too are those latent worries that you might embarrass yourself by doing something “out of character.” You no longer feel bad when you cut somebody off in pursuit of a juicy scene – it is remarkably difficult to empathize with someone when you can’t see their face.

Behind the mask, you are not only viewing but viewed -by the other spectators, and sometimes by the characters (such as when the old woman saw you as a psychotic vision; it is worth noting now that she was not an old woman at all, but rather a young woman wearing an old woman mask). At times, you are asked to do more than spectate. A frail woman who has just watched her husband cheat on her needs a shoulder to cry on. A smooth-talking cowboy/bartender pours you a shot of whiskey. The town grocer invites you into his storeroom, where he takes off your mask and confesses that he feels like he is trapped in somebody else’s dream. Is it yours?

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It is impossible to be a passive participant. This is the existential art of which Sartre could’ve hardly dreamed. You make a choice with every step, even when that choice is to not take a step at all. You are ultimately responsible for the show you see. But hasn’t this been true all along? We like to think of the work of art as a closed totality, as if every poem, book, or play presents itself to us on a silver platter, ready to be chewed, digested, and internalized. We fail to see that every act of reading must itself involve a new writing; that when we spectate, we also create, by filling in gaps, interpreting, and singing along in our own voice. What is perhaps most important about immersive theatrics is its ability to make us starkly aware of the interminable power of our own spectatorship. The form’s very existence poses a deconstructive threat to the dichotomy of “art” and “life” which allows us to think the performance has ended when we step out of the theatre and into the brisk evening air. When we take off our masks and go back to playing our “real” identities: student, writer; woman, man; gay, straight.

In its scope and production value, “The Drowned Man” represents an impressive undertaking in the history of theatre. However, it does not fulfill its own existential potential. Punchdrunk makes it too easy for their spectators by flooding their intricate sets with a prodigious cast of talented singers and dancers, so that it’s impossible to spend a second bored. Choices should have consequences, but even if you choose to turn down its invitation to participate actively, this show will eventually come to you. You watch a couple swing dance on roller skates, and then you follow a naked man to his trailer. You help him get dressed, and then you watch his ballet solo in the forest. The experience is breathtakingly beautiful. But rarely does it offer those moments of raw tension or discomfort in which we experience the most serious contemplation of art.

In spite of these qualms, I really enjoyed “The Drowned Man.” I’ve actually gone to see it three times, each visit enabling me to achieve a deeper engagement with the text, the characters, and the fantastic dreamscape that unfolds in that London warehouse. But each time I was left feeling that the most revolutionary applications of immersive theatrics are yet to come. I’d like to see the form mashed up with with Artaud’s notion of a Theatre of Cruelty – not in the sense of whips and chains, but rather the cruelty it takes to show your audience a truth that they do not wish to see. After all its whimsy and mystique, “The Drowned Man” ends predictably, with the whole cast dancing in a grand finale. I want to see a show that wows its spectators and then bores them, forcing them to search in vain for a happy ending as they grapple with the banality of their own lives. I want to see “Waiting for Godot” staged in a theatre with no chairs and no intermission, so that the audience has to experience physical discomfort as they spend two hours (make it three!) waiting for Godot. I want to see theatre that doesn’t just entertain, but makes me feel something. And come to think of it, I don’t want to see it at all: I want to be a part of it.

photo credit – Alastair Muir

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