The Ghostly Voyeur: a Punchdrunk experience

Instead of sitting in a theatre watching actors, you’re walking round a large building watching actors. Is the only difference between Punchdrunk and traditional theatre the amount of exercise you get during the show?

No.

Last night my partner and I went to see Punchdrunk’s current production, The Drowned Man. We’d both been to their shows before – I’d seen Faust in an eerie Docklands warehouse, he’d seen Masque of the Red Death and Crash of the Elysium – so we knew what we were getting into. Still, I was nervous.

The venue this time is a four-storey building right next to St Mary’s Hospital, which is where I work, and which makes a good context for something like Punchdrunk in that it’s astepladderslready quite an odd area. The canal by the hospital is crowded with picturesque narrowboats, one of which is currently also a bookshop and cocktail bar, another of which seems to be a floating boardroom. The canal is flanked on all sides by tall glass office blocks. It’s like two contrasting landscapes superimposed on top of each other. And right in the middle of the hospital, at the moment, there’s a forest of silver stepladders, erected by the media waiting for Princess Kate to arrive. Many of the stepladders have amusing post-it notes on, and there’s a man in a Union Jack outfit who seems to live on a bench outside the main entrance now, waiting with a congratulatory sign.

Anyway. It all puts you in the right mood. The right mood for Punchdrunk is random and receptive. It’s an expensive night out (even more so if you’ve paid for babysitting) and there’s really no point in doing it if you’re not going to embrace the atmosphere. As we went up in the lift, one women was refusing to put on her mask – every audience member is issued with one, you’re told this in advance, and it’s important to wear them because the actors don’t. Otherwise you wouldn’t know who was audience and who was actor. (The actors being the only ones not in masks feels quite symbolic, although that didn’t occur to me at the time.) The actor/staff member ordered her to wear the mask and she did, muttering ‘This is pathetic’. I’m going to guess she did not get the most out of her evening. I also wonder, though, what the staff do if someone really won’t obey. Can they make them leave? It really would unbalance the event to have a non-masked audience member. Perhaps the combination of authority and peer pressure always works.

I’m not going to give many details of what happened. Anyway, I couldn’t tell you the plot if I wanted to, because at the end of the evening I still didn’t really know what it was, although I’d picked up enough clues to come up with a hypothesis. As well as being an audience member, Punchdrunk casts you in the role of detective story reader, or puzzle solver. My partner, who is a gamer, also noted that the experience of wandering round a series of rooms, picking up objects and examining them was a familiar one, and he was right, of course: another way of looking at it is that you’re playing a live action version of a video game. A sinister, confusing video game, but then I find most video games sinister and confusing. At least with Punchdrunk you don’t have to shoot any space zombies. Unless I missed that room.

As we walked round, silent and masked in a crowd of silent masked strangers, following whichever actor we came across, my perception of my role changed again. We were ghosts. Voyeuristic ghosts, unable to communicate with the living or with each other – or perhaps not unable to, but constrained to silence. Standing in the shadows, trying to piece together what life was about. If it sounds scary to be part of, imagine what it must have been like for the actors – spending their evening in a series of dark rooms attended by a comet’s tail of people with Mr Noseybonk faces who were watching their every move. Maybe some of the scenes we witnessed were just the cast being driven to the brink of insanity by the experience.

Probably not. I find acting a terrifying concept anyway; perhaps this isn’t any more daunting than a standard acting job. I can’t believe it doesn’t lead to a few nightmares, though.

On top of being audience, gamers, detectives, voyeurs and ghosts, you’re also backdrop. Actors push past you, slide around you, and at one point I got a piece of scenery tipped onto me. (I was delighted.) If you’re lucky/unlucky, you may also become an extra: danced with, spoken to, enlisted as a brief helper. At an overnight immersive production I went to last year, I oiled Medea’s legs. It was amazing.

(There is one tip I’d like Punchdrunk to take from Medea. At that production, they told each group on arrival that tall people should make sure they stood towards the back and short people should feel free to get themselves to the front, and it was adhered to. At The Drowned Man, I sometimes felt that every other audience member was well over six feet tall and all of them were standing directly in front of me. (I’m five foot two on a really good day.) Sometime you could move round to a clear space, but sometime it wasn’t possible and I didn’t get to see anything. Just a quibble.)

I’m always a bit surprised by the fact that I love immersive theatre. My default preference is for non-interactive pastimes: TV and books over video games and roleplaying. I don’t want to be forced to join in or made to talk to strangers. But I do love the feeling of being allowed backstage, of feeling part of a mystery. And you discover things about yourself, too. Are you the kind of person who wants to experience the event alone or will you stay with your companions? (Usually I opt for alone; last night my partner and I stayed together; both can work.) Will you follow the action – and if so, whose? – or wander off to explore? Will you peer over an actor’s shoulder as she reads a letter, as though she couldn’t see you? Do you hope to become part of the plot, or want to hide in the darkness?

And will you mind if you don’t know what’s going on? For me, it’s part of the appeal. Because it’s all about the moment: two women dancing on a coffin-shaped table, the discovery of a strange letter in a drawer, men wordlessly fighting in a twilit desert. You’re inside the mystery, yet still mystified. Marvellous.

2 comments

  1. sharon says:

    It sounds like an amazing experience, and possibly too spooky for me.

  2. To combat this creeping passivity, Barrett founded Punchdrunk , a UK theater troupe with a reputation for immersive, interactive productions that push audiences to the limit. Among their best-known shows is the smash-hit Sleep No More , where masked audience members tour a five-story, 1920s-era hotel, moving from room to room with the actors as they reinterpret Shakespeare’s MacBeth.With dozens of dream-like productions that defy traditional theatrical conventions, Punchdrunk invites audience members to explore the queasy curiosity that’s sparked when we’re at the edge of our comfort zones. I talked with Barrett about how you hook an audience, why you better have a Plan B, and the upside of uncomfortability.

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