In recent years there has been something of an explosion in immersive experiences. Although these events always sound to me like something I’d probably like, I’ve been quite slow in actually getting involved.
Up until now, the closest I’ve got is probably Secret Cinema. I went to one of their earlier productions – Funny Face at the Royal Academy. But I was left disappointed. The film was projected from a DVD (one I noted that I could have got from a shop for about a fiver), the seating was uncomfortable, and although they had lots of performers entertaining you, none of it really made up for a pillar obscuring a full third of the screen. There’s something to be said for watching films being projected in purpose built premises.
Since then Secret Cinema has gone from strength to strength, although I’ve not been back, put off by the spiralling cost, and the fact that in general, I like to know a little about what I’m going to see ahead of time. That probably means I’ve missed out, but I can live that.
Theatrically, I’ve really been limited to In The Beginning Was The End from dreamthinkspeak which was performed in the rooms between Somerset House and King’s College earlier this year. You entered that production in small groups and then explored a series of rooms which allowed you to mostly see a story unfolding before your eyes. The order of rooms you visited had a linearity to them. You weren’t forced into rooms a, b and c in sequence, but you’d probably visit all three of them before moving onto d, e and f. As a result, although not everybody saw everything, there was a structure to the piece and the story filled itself in as it went along.
Now I’ve not been to a previous Punchdrunk production, so this was something a bit new to me. The Drowned Man in presented in an old Post Office sorting depot next door to Paddington Station. You enter through the area where the vans would have delivered and collected the mail, but once beyond that, you’re in a completely different world.
The first thing that hits you when you get inside is the vastness of the enterprise – with several enormous floors filled with rooms of varying sizes. We’re inside a Hollywood film studio at the end of its run at some indeterminate period of its history (clues inside suggest anytime between Hollywood’s “Golden Age” with contracted players, through to sometime in the sixties).
We’re told that the production itself is based on Büchner’s fractured masterpiece Woyzeck. But really that doesn’t matter. And a key thing to say about this production is that you’re not going to come out of it with an especially clear picture of what is going on. Fractured is definitely the right word for this production.
Indeed with scenes being acted simultaneously in different parts of the building, it’s simply not possible to completely stitch everything together. Indeed you may well come out of it without having an awfully good idea of what happened at all.
Once you’re inside, you’re given a mask to wear. This is important, because it allows you differentiate yourself from fellow audience members. You’re also strongly encourage to not go around in the group in which you arrived, but to have an individual experience. I think that this is the best way to experience it, although I saw many couples holding hands lest they lose track of one another – something that’s surprisingly easy to do in the often dimly lit and often crowded areas. You’re also told to remain completely silent throughout. I went in a party of four and we were forcibly broken up even before we’d left the elevator you enter the building via. We had agreed to meet at the bar at set time, although in the event only three of us managed – the fourth not actually finding the somewhat hidden bar.
So you’re off on your own ready to explore. And what a lot there is to explore. The exquisiteness of the set is a sight to behold, and it’s clear that many many months of work were spent building it and populating it with objects – thousands and thousands of them. It being a “film studio,” there are many elements of the film world from sets, to costume and make-up areas through to special effects and sound. Each are wonderfully rendered, and you could spend all your time in there just examining the props in detail. Indeed it seemed that some people were doing just that. I especially loved the foley room with hundreds of objects and microphones to be “dubbed” onto Temple Studio’s films. It reminded me strongly of the where Toby Jones’ character worked in Berberian Sound Studio.
But if you’re not going to get excited about prop porn, you then need to seek out action, and this is perhaps the most infuriating thing about the production. Very quickly each actor gets something of a following, perhaps fifty or more people. People stay with an actor because they can then follow a single thread of the storyline. But when two or three people are interacting, they draw quite a crowd. To begin with this was fine, but later on, it felt that bigger and bigger crowds were gathering. When a scene had been played out (and I say scene, but as often as not, I’d really describe it as a dance with minimal if any dialogue), audiences would choose which character they’d follow, and in the performance I saw at least, that would become something of a bun-fight.
Although the masks afford an anonymity to proceedings, so that you don’t feel unduly uncomfortable watching sometimes quite sensitive scenes, I also felt that they allowed some audience members the right to be rude. Hidden behind their masks they could barge in without a care of others either blocking them or pushing through doorways. If you’ve ever been in an office fire drill, you know how crowded the stairwells get. Well at least in that circumstance everyone is going the same way. Imagine if you’re trying to go up against the flow!
In one scene a character was handed a letter and she slowly opened it. Cue lots of barging, led by one lady in particular who effectively encourage the others, all crowding round to see if they could read the letter over the actress’s shoulder. I found it all a little unbecoming.
So I was left with a dilemma. I could follow the hordes around and see more of the action. Or I could step away from them and discover more myself. I tended towards the latter.
Now I know from reading reviews in advance, and talking to others afterwards, that there were a series of more intimate one-on-one encounters taking place around the set. That sounds a bit seedy, but I’d heard about actors grabbing audience members and dragging them off into secret rooms, even locking them in. This is obviously a very visceral experience, but not sadly one that I had. Based on the number of people at the finale (and I’m still not sure how they managed to orchestrate it in such a way that everyone turned up in the same place at the same time), there was an awfully large audience who’d had staggered start times, and perhaps 30-40 actors. It simply wouldn’t have been possible for every audience member to have had such a one-to-one encounter.
I did, happily, find the bar which was beautifully fashioned in the manner of a cocktail lounge. There was a live band with a crooner who gave way to a very good lounge singer belting out a few classics. We even had a bit of cabaret in the form of a contortionist act.
And the bar does let you take off your masks which is important, because it can get very hot inside there. I trust that the masks are disinfected between performances! You’re definitely advised to wear light clothes since I suspect the old Post Office building has never had state of the art air conditioning anyway. Perhaps this will be less of a problem later in a run that continues through until December.
At all times, there’s a powerful music soundtrack that’s piped through just about the entire building. Although certain areas seem to have their own specific audio pieces, as a whole the effect is to give you the feeling of wandering through a David Lynch film. In particular the nightclub from Mulholland Drive – Silencio. And yes, I am aware that they’ve actually built that in Paris. I imagine too that the music acts as cues for the actors to ensure that they get to right places at the right times.
So overall, a powerful piece, although I came away having experienced something, I couldn’t tell you entirely what it was. I’d almost be tempted to go again, were it not quite an expensive production to see, and there being no certaint that I’d get lots more out of it a second time.
Part of me wonders if I prefer the idea of immersive theatre to the actuality. I’m not sure, and I’d certainly try some other productions. But I’d also like to go to something where there are fewer people. I suspect that the economics of putting on a production on this scale means that you have to let upwards of a thousand people in at any one time to make it work. Nonetheless, I’d like something a little less crowded. And there’s a benefit to having some kind of linear approach to proceedings.
What I will say is that going in a group does mean that you can go to the pub afterwards, compare notes, and learn about bits that one of you saw that others didn’t. We were able to fill in quite a few holes in this manner later on.
In general, I would recommend it as an experience, but I’d have some reservations from a theatrical perspective.
Interestingly, after I’d spent the evening in this faux Hollywood experience, I listened to this week’s Saturday Play Jake Liebowitz: A Life in Film by Frederick Raphael. The play is said to be based on Raphael’s own experiences, but it’s another fake Hollywood story. In this case in the form of a faux documentary detailing the life and work of auteur Liebowitz. I say “auteur” but he mostly seems to come off as one of those Hollywood blow-hards. Although American, you hear bits of people from Hitchcock to Ridley Scott in the story. It begins at the end of the studio system and in the years of naming names to McCarthy, before surging forward to the latter part of the twentieth century.
Eleanor Bron plays his interlocutor, Alexandra Crawley, who might be a kind of Dilys Powell or even Joan Bakewell figure who’s run across the Liebowitz on multiple occasions throughout his career, and handily recorded them.
The beauty of the piece is in the multitude of fake film clips we get throughout the film, all of which are pitch perfect in their quality. Director Dirk Maggs has seen to it that the sound of the piece is absolutely spot with poorer quality in earlier films than later. But things like music, the nature of the dialogue and effects are all completely in place for each of the films’ periods.
The only slight issue I’d have with this part of the production is that when you hear real film clips on the radio, unless a producer has been busy with the scissors, there are various unexplained silences when characters are “doing things” during the dialogue. Whereas radio can’t stomach those silences, so scenes play much faster. (Think of those American radio adaptions of classic Hollywood films, often with the same actors, who managed to get a 90 minute film down to 30 minutes for radio.)
It’s a beautifully made piece, although I couldn’t always really get a feel for each of the fake films. And unfortunately, at times, the person I had in my head was maker of schlock Jaz Milvane, sometime buddy of Ed Reardon. And that’s someone you want people thinking about. And despite every British actor worth his or her salt, currently appearing in US TV series with perfect American accents, the flaws are easier to hear on radio.
Nonetheless, it’s worth a listen (Although I see Gillian Reynolds hated it).