You could never get bored in a city like London, with its many hidden gems and endless fun places to visit. Out of the numerous plays, musicals, films and performances that I have been to, the one which has given me the most long-standing and impactful experience would definitely be ‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’ – an award-winning promenade performance presented by Punchdrunk and the National Theatre.
I went to see this ‘play’ back in the beginning of July in 2013. To this date, I am honestly still struggling to find words that would aptly describe this genre of performance – whether it should be classified as a play, dance, drama, or other genres? For now, I’d stick with calling it a ‘play’.
The play is staged at a 3-storey warehouse near Paddington. Upon arrival, my friend and I were made to queue in a dark, semi-open area, where people lined up in an organized manner – separated by railings like in a theme park. We were given a synopsis of the story to read, and were released into the warehouse in small groups. Once we were in, we had to walk through extremely dark, maze-like corridors and passageways that had many corners to turn. As you could imagine, the feeling of being in a theme park felt only stronger. After the group of us congregated, an actress – dressed in old-fashioned clothes – greeted us and gave us white masks which had massive bird beaks. It covered our whole face, leaving our eyes as the only exposed area. The actress led us into one of those old lifts with vintage sliding gates and released us separately onto two different floors. She kept laughing crazily and speaking to us. It was obvious that the acting had already begun as soon as we stepped into the warehouse. I was left very curious of what the sets had in stall.
The first floor that we set foot on was designed as a small-town America in the 1950s with a number of shops, drugstores, pubs, small houses, a salon and a fountain. The set was massive, and took some time to explore – it was very dark and quiet, with the occasional eerie music and loud noise. We saw a number of people wearing the same mask as us, wandering in and out of the different houses and architectural buildings. The silence was ringing in my ears, and the feeling was very strange – as if I was living in a dream. I also almost lost my friend a few times, as every one practically looked the same. Soon we saw a number of white-masked people trailing a few individuals who were not wearing masks. We soon realized that those were the protagonists of the play.
The interesting thing about this production is that the story was conveyed via silent-acting, modern dance, massive bodily movements and clever use of the set and audience. There were hardly any dialogues and the actors (who wore no masks) were walking around the floor or lingering in different shops and houses – it was up to the audience who to follow and which story to unfold. The set was also decorated with intricate detail, and through wandering in and out of buildings, you were able to pick up and explore little things like shop receipts, canned food, and hand-written letters. I guess the idea was for us to decipher the story through the clues we picked up ourselves, alongside the acting and interactions we saw.
If I were to pinpoint what impressed me the most, it’d definitely be the second floor that we explored. Once we exited the staircase, I realized that I was walking on sand. In fact the whole floor was covered in it, as it was designed to be a desert. A woman was praying silently somewhere in the middle of the desert, with a group of masked audience surrounding her. Further along there was a group of women doing some kind of ritual, and a half-naked man dancing furiously. In the corner of a sand dune we found a tiny tunnel underneath. My friend decided to go in and so I followed suit. The tunnel was so tiny we had to be on all fours, and it reminded me of the tunnel that I went into in Egypt to see the mummies, although it was much darker at the set and I could not see my own palm even when placed right in front of my face. At the end of the tunnel was a spacious, dimly-lit room, designed as an abandoned space/room. I don’t think it was meant to signify anything, but it was a very weird and powerful memory, something I did not expect from this production.
All in all, I am not sure I was able to grasp the storyline very well. I know that the story is about betrayal and murder between two couples, with the traitor/lover roles being switched round between the two pairs. I think my overall feeling is that I was very impressed, but I feel that the producers could have made even better use of this kind of play, by giving more concrete clues for the audience to solve the story in a combined effort, or grasp a better understanding of the plot. I just wish that it had made better use of the endless doors that a set like this could have opened up to!