For their first big London show in six years, Punchdrunk, the pioneering immersive theatre company, have commandeered a cavernous former Royal Mail sorting office next door to Paddington Station and transformed it into a twisted Dream Factory.
The Drowned Man takes Georg Buchner's proto-Expressionist masterpiece Woyzeck, which was still in four drafts at his death in 1837, and peers at its harrowing story of paranoia, exploitation, jealousy and murder through the fractured filter of seedy 1960s Hollywood.
Those familiar with Punchdrunk's previous projects will not be surprised to hear that you are required to don a mask (a sweatily hot business in the current heatwave), told to remain silent at all times, bundled into an industrial elevator and then set adrift in the worlds of Temple Pictures and the run-down LA suburb outside. Aptly, there is no shortage of folk who have lost their grip on reality in either of these locations. Directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle (in this co-production with the National) are bent on disorienting you further by running two versions of the story concurrently, one with a male, the other with a female Woyzeck. And the fact that you are never quite sure whether certain scenes will prove to have been a cinematic “take” compounds the blurring between the illusory and actual.
The designers Livi Vaughan, Beatrice Minns and Felix Barrett have created an impressively eerie, intricately detailed art-installation of a set over four floors, comprising everything from sleazy audition suites to a forlorn trailer park in a forest clearing, from a cinema showing Eyes Without A Face to a sound effects studio where we watch a woman calmly record a man's desperate gurgles as she holds his head under a tank of water. Part of the fun of a Punchdrunk production lies in what you might discover if you have a root round, and I was amused to find that on the mad doctor's wall display of questionnaire clipboards, the answer to “the artist's state of mind at the start of filming?” was, in the majority of cases, “stable”: hmm, a likely story. But the other great Punchdrunk pleasure – chasing round to find the action which erupts non-sequentially and attempting to fit the various pieces together – feels more like a chore here because, in contrast to their superlative Masque of the Red Death, the strategic deployment of the material fails to exert a comparably tantalising fascination.
There are a number of powerful sequences – such as the kinkily orgiastic executive party where the female Woyzeck witnesses her husband's affair with the studio diva. But, for all the thrashing around of Maxine Doyle's DV8-style choreography and for all the extraordinary logistical flair of the staging, the dramatic encounters come across as signalled rather than experienced and the show, which ends in a company hoe-down, as over-stretched and lacking in heart.
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