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Theatre Review: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

28th January 2014

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Picture the scene: a fading old-Hollywood actress, dressed in rags as a witch-like, caricatured grandmother figure, bent over and howling, whilst an audience clad in plague doctor masks surrounds her and looks on in silence. Elsewhere, various other sinister spectacles are taking place – we know this, without knowing where, or what they necessarily mean. All this in a disused 1940s film studio, once a British outpost for Hollywood and a cinematic powerhouse – before it began to decay, its staff were sworn to secrecy about goings–on inside, and it eventually shut down without warning or explanation over night in October 1962.

It goes without saying that immersive theatrical production The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable would be eerie because of its setting alone. But it doesn’t rely on Temple Studio’s dark spaces and elusive history to provide its faded, questionable, slightly grotesque glamour – instead the direction, juxtaposition of parallel stories and way the characters deliberately lose the audience as they weave in and out of the studio’s labyrinth of corridors work together to create a production that is elusive, out of reach, and as disorientating as the building it is housed in – whilst remaining relentlessly engaging.

As you begin watching (perhaps the wrong word, because this is not a production you passively watch – it is one where you are fully immersed and decide what form it takes), you might still be clinging onto the notion that you will be able to follow each of the multiple stories closely enough to develop some kind of linear narrative.

You will be able to do this, but only if you follow one character relentlessly for the full three hours – which would be a mistake. The production requires you to let go of the inherent need to see and understand everything. Its immersive nature forces you to break the need for a structure, and dip in and out of the characters’ separate yet intertwined stories much as you would if observing people in a real life setting. It is an individual experience - entering, you are advised to follow your own path through the evening, rather than moving around with your companions. At times you might find yourself alone; a minute later in a crowd of 40 people. Often the actors feel uncomfortably close.  

It is the weaving in and out of corridors and individual stories that gives Punchdrunk’s production a thematic approach rather than a narrative one; it is more about overriding emotions - heartbreak, isolation, hope, freedom - and the fleeting moments that capture them than leaving with a fully established and concluded story. Attending a second time, you are likely to have a completely different experience.  

Theme over narrative is established through the physicality of the entire production – making use of dance and music (which you might find works to guide you on where to venture next) rather than an excess of speech offers a dreamlike (or nightmare-like) quality, as if we are watching snippets of history through a sepia-hued lens.  

The fact that it is a self-defined fable (“a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral”) is also reinforced by the actors’ movements - often jerky, in-human, grotesque - their lack of speech, and the animalistic behaviours that they relentlessly exhibit. The moral aspect comes from its overriding questions about reliance on physical aesthetics and the destructive nature of Hollywood itself. 

Who is ‘the drowned man’ of the title? In a production set on the fringes of Hollywood, a dusk-like world of trailer parks and auditions and illicit and sinister trysts, where characters slide from self-destruction to euphoria in a matter of seconds, it could be any of them.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle and is taking place at Temple Studios until March. Book tickets here. Suitable only for those aged 16+

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