Last night I had a dream. And then I went home, and had a dream.
The Drowned Man is the new production by notorious theatre company Punchdrunk, this time staged with the backing of the National Theatre. Having missed their previous London show, The Masque of the Red Death (now six or seven years ago), I was desperate to see this one. As it happens, Punchdrunk seem to have anticipated this yearning among their London audience by enormously inflating both the number of tickets available and the space in which the production takes place.
There are plenty of reviews online which will give you a flavour of the experience, without spoiling it for those who haven’t been (I do strongly recommend going, though, especially if you’re a Punchdrunk virgin). Critical opinion splits about 80:20 in favour and the show tends to excite opinion to one extreme or the other – those who love it adore it, those who hate it do so with a passion. I want to use this post to explore what the experience meant to me, and to maybe start a discussion about how cinema – especially horror cinema – might learn from what Punchdrunk is doing.
Because I (like the whole audience) had to be masked throughout I couldn’t wear my glasses. My prescription isn’t very strong, so I could manage without. This meant, however, that my vision was slightly obscured, so that everything not up close took on a blur. What made it worse was that every bit of the production space (we’re talking 100 rooms spread across four – or was it five? – floors) was filled with a gentle smoky haze. So the action unfolded in front of me in a mist, people’s expressions vague, their faces indistinguishable, the lights rendered remote yet still blinding at the wrong angle. On top of this, the soundtrack (relayed through speakers in every room, but different depending on where you were) was remorseless, varying from torch songs to half-heard snatches of music to throbbing drones and hums. Every room was fitted out in the richest detail, all of it lovingly and accurately redolent of its 1960s Americana movie setting, whether that be a suburban home, a medical lab, a foley studio, a cinema or a dingy motel. And in every room, surrounding the actor-dancers, pressing in from all quarters, were us: the audience. Masked. Every one of us in a death’s head mask which hid the mouth so not a single expression was visible. In the obscure lighting all I could see was the same face, duplicated across the darkness, its plain, greyish, blank stare confronting me. A crowd of ghosts. And my mask pressed on my face so I couldn’t breathe deeply.
Doesn’t this sound like a nightmare? That’s the idea. Punchdrunk’s trademark is bringing alive the darker, unsettling aspects of the story (and they’ve picked some pretty dark stories to display over the years – Macbeth, Peter Grimes, Woyzeck – so much so that some critics are wondering if they can actually move out of what appears to be settling into a thematic comfort zone). Hammered by the ear-splitting soundtrack, disturbed by the ghostly faces and the darkness, fearful of the unpredictable story and of being caught up against my will in the thick of the action, I felt I was living in someone else’s subconscious brought alive around me. And when I caught sight of my own unblinking, unmoving face in a mirror, it was like a threatening stranger challenging me to do something but giving me no hint what.
Those whose minds are turning to David Lynch aren’t far off the mark. Punchdrunk don’t cite him as an influence, but the shadow of Mulholland Drive, and other films (I thought particularly of Inland Empire with its disjointed, difficult narrative, fragments of scenes being played out before being abandoned) looms large over this production. Many of the details – the woods through which the characters run, the chequered dance floor, the droning hum of white noise punctuated occasionally by stentorian voices, the cabaret singers, the red curtains – are so obviously inspired by Lynch films that perhaps they didn’t feel they needed to cite him. (The title of this post? At one point, I distinctly heard the words “we lived inside the dream” being boomed out from the soundtrack. It’s a slight modification of the line “we live inside a dream” from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Coincidence? Yes, it could be…)
I went home from the production, utterly exhausted from three hours of walking (occasionally running), concentrating, staring into the blur, feeling my ears bleed from the noise, and trembling with fear and anticipation. That night, I had a dream in which the character playing Wendy – with whom I felt I didn’t spend nearly enough time – climbed up to an enormous clock near the ceiling which she somehow folded around herself. She then sang the “In Heaven” song from Lynch’s Eraserhead. Sitting here now, my head still cloudy and spinning, I’m no longer sure which parts of the experience I lived through in real life and which parts I dreamt.
Shouldn’t horror cinema leave you feeling like that? How would we, as horror filmmakers, achieve the same sense of confused reality, the same kind of disturbed mental state, the same blurring of the real and fantastic? Our audience does not move around wearing masks: it sits in padded chairs in a cinema, or in a brightly-lit living room, or in front of a computer or smartphone. That fourth wall – which Punchdrunk breaks so immediately and effectively – is always there in a film, a barrier to full immersion. How do we close that distance between us and the audience, so that they are no longer safely behind the glass looking through it?
I don’t know the answer (although I have a few ideas, which I’ll keep to myself just for now because I might want to use them). But right now there’s a sense amongst aficionados that Punchdrunk has peaked, that this is the culmination of its last ten years or so of activity. Perhaps it’s time for other art forms to think about how to incorporate some of the Punchdrunk experience into what they offer.
[Footnote: all photos on this page are shamelessly cribbed from the National Theatre's website. I did not take any photos during my visit to the production. It's not allowed, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone else. You have to experience this for yourself. The production runs until the end of December. Book here.]