The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – Visits 4, 5 and 6

Seeing as my previous 3 blog posts about ‘The Drowned Man’ have covered what the show is and how it works, this one is more about the finer nuances and how, even after 6 visits, I’m still nowhere near done with Temple Studios.  Friends have accused me of having an addiction (perhaps they are right), but given that I know people who are already into double figures (some, well into the twenties), I think I’ve been remarkably restrained.  The truth is that a Punchdrunk show doesn’t come around very often and when they do, they’re usually small scale and tickets are like gold dust.  And even when tickets are readily available, the show can only last as long as the building – Crossrail has a compulsory purchase order on the site and their demolition works begin on 1st April 2014.  There will be no transfer, no finding of a new home for Temple Studios to reside in, no bringing it back in a few years – the building dictates the show that goes in it, so once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.  Perhaps this explains my resolve to make the most of it while it still exists.

I am still in awe of the set design, the richness of detail, right down to the lingering scent of TCP in the doctor’s office.  The fact that if you were to go through the filing cabinets, you’d find pens, pencils, rubber bands, paperclips, documents, files with personal details, CVs, bits of scripts, memos etc.  There is also the sheer logistics of a performance on this scale, the way that as you follow a character through a door, another character is walking through the door on the opposite side of the room and the conversation starts between them – there is a naturalism to this which requires so much precision to get right.  And as the action loops (each loop lasting about an hour and repeated 3 times over), there is the constant moving about of props and costume, tidying things up and putting them somewhere else to be found by another character later on.

The thing with repeat visits is that it gives you the opportunity to see different permutations of their actors in the various roles.  The lead characters (as well as some of the peripheral ones) have some very physically demanding choreography, so it seems that ‘understudies’ are switched in quite frequently to give the main actors a bit of a break in a smaller role.  But regardless of combination and role, all of the actors are working solidly for 3 hours without a break and it’s hard to know whom is understudying whom.  On Friday and Saturday nights there is a ‘double’ performance (5pm and 9pm), so that is 6 hours of performance in a 7 hour time slot – these people are without doubt the hardest working cast in London.  I’m yet to ‘do the double’ so I don’t know whether they switch the cast about for the second performance of the evening.

One of the things that fascinates me most is the how the number of audience affects the dynamics of the performance.  On visit 5 I managed to get into one of the first few lifts, so the place was largely empty.  I headed straight up to the desert on the top floor in the hope of finding the elusive and mysterious Dust Witch (I’ve tried to follow her before and in the split second where I’ve looked away from her, she has vanished into the gloom), but as she was nowhere to be seen, I was drawn across the sand to the lilting sounds of ‘Catalina La O’, one of my favourite salsa songs.  There I found 2 men (Andy and Miguel?) and a girl (Faye), who was dancing flirtatiously for them.  There was just me and two other masked audience, giving a real impression that we were out a long way from civilisation.  By sheer coincidence, I was back in the same spot when this scene was repeated on the third loop, but this time there must have been at least 30 masked audience encircling the whole scene, adding a certain sinister claustrophobia to that very same bit of choreography.

If you can get into one of those early lifts, you may well be the first person to stumble across a scene.  This happened to me on visit 6 when having walked out of the lift, I seemed to be the only person to have noticed all the movement going on in the drugstore on the main street.  I walked in through the door and there was salesman Harry Greener in the middle of a song and dance routine advertising Miracle Salve to the Drugstore Girl at the counter while she polished the glasses.  It wasn’t simply a matter of waiting for the audience to show up and then ‘doing a bit of acting’, they were both very much in full swing and performing to no one but themselves – it was a good 2 minutes before we were eventually joined by another audience member.  In those early minutes while the lifts are scattering people around the building, the actors could easily be kicking their heels until someone stumbles across them, but they aren’t.  The scene goes ahead, audience or not.  And when you’re the only person watching, it seems rude to leave.

The main thing I have learnt is that while I may have a list of characters whom I would love to follow for a whole loop, it would be wrong to make that my game plan for the evening.  Gut feeling and instinct will always take you on a far more interesting journey.  1) Being hell bent on finding one character will mean you missing all sorts of other stuff and 2) taking a chance on whomever you find first may very well lead you to the very person that you were hoping to see in the first place.  The Drowned Man is very much like a scratch card – with every return, you scrape off a little more of the silver foil to reveal the bigger picture underneath.

So where better to begin my New Year’s Eve celebrations than in my beloved Temple Studios?  If you’ve got £47.50 to spare and can be in Paddington by 5pm, I’ll see you in the queue tonight.  And my new year’s resolution?  To get myself over to New York to go and experience the wonders of ‘Sleep No More’, Punchdrunk’s riff on Macbeth.  I truly am hooked.  I would like to wish all of you a happy, healthy, prosperous and mischief-filled 2014.  Thank you very much for reading – I am always happily amazed that anyone wants to read anything that I’ve written!

‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ by Punchdrunk is on at Temple Studios, 31 London Street, W2 1DJ until Sunday 23rd February 2014.  PLEASE NOTE: This is a promenade (walking) production – comfortable footwear recommended.  Running time will be up to 3 hours depending on your entry time.  You will be masked for the duration of the performance (masks may only be removed in the bar area and at the end of the performance); contact lenses would be preferable over glasses.  Age restriction 16+ years.  All 16 and 17 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.  May contain nudity.

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