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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Last night I went to see Punchdrunk's performance of The Drowned Man, the latest in their series of promenade theatre pieces. Housed in an enormous building next to Paddington station in the middle of London, the piece was a strange mixture of ambient environmental exploration and two loose narratives of betrayal and murder, expressed through dance and physical theatre.

Contains spoilers

The set for the performance contains an "inside" and an "outside" area; each of the two narratives thread into one another, like an inter-wound double helix. That is, so far as I was able to piece the narrative together. The performance is neither high on concessions to audience, nor on narrative coherence. Indeed, parts of the narrative were completely lost on me (as I didn't see them) while others remained cryptic.

The best instance of this last phenomenon was the small experience that I had in a side room with one of the actors. Throughout the piece, there are some major dance numbers. These take place (from what I worked out) primarily in the film studio main set and in the villainous boss' basement murder den. One of the most amusing dance scenes (which was repeated twice during the performance duration) is a pastiche of Grease featuring all the usual aspects, including hilarious lip syncing efforts with the soundtrack. However, during the second of these renditions, I found myself in the medical screening area of the studio. I was alone with my wife and an actor who appeared to be transferring pills from one pot to another.

Throughout the performance, the actors vastly ignore the presence of the many masked spectators surrounding them. However, at this instance, the actor looked directly at me and held out his hand. I wasn't sure how to respond for a good minute, until I took his hand and attempted to shake it. He, however, had other plans and took me off to a door that I had previously attempted to open, but found locked. He produced a key, whirled me inside and locked us in (my wife, fairly terrified, had to stay outside!) The actor then proceeded to conduct a "medical" examination upon me, complete with Rorschach test, pulse and eye examination. Finally, holding my arms, the "doctor" moved in close to my head, our faces touching, and whispered in my ear: "I had a patient like you once. His symptoms were consistent with yours. Verdict: death by drowning".

At another point, I saw a man enter a phone booth, close the doors and then disappear. After a minute of inspecting the panelling, I find the secret door. I should have crawled through the passage to see where it led, but my traditional (and here, misplaced) sense of audience decorum stops me.

The narrative is mostly silent and almost entirely done in dance and are high on sex appeal. Indeed, as already mentioned, the grim sequences in the basement are among the best. However, there is little to grasp hold of to put together the strands and certainly not in a single viewing, although if you can work out where various parts of the performance loop (as I think I did above), you can see how different chronologies fit together within the fragments.

Reflecting on the show, I want to see it again and feel excited that there will be other areas to explore, while also feeling that more guidance wouldn't have gone amiss. I also felt it was too easy to get trapped in repetitive loops and that the "variations on a theme" that the piece clearly worked upon left a homogeneity across the diverse spaces that could have been better handled. That said, in an environment in which each individual journey is so different, the term homogeneity is, perhaps, less than fair.