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The play you direct

An experience of immersive theatre in Paddington’s former Royal Mail sorting office leaves Marko Jobst reflecting upon the role of architects in orchestrating everyday life

It would be easy to say that the highlight of my visit to Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable was the ridiculously satisfying crawl through a narrow, dark tunnel, hands and knees abraded by grains of sand, which took me from a small room-cum-shrine filled with candles and odd unsavoury bits of personal possessions to dimly lit sand dunes populated by straw men. It certainly provided for vivid dreams. But what really marked the experience of this theatrical production was something less obvious: the way the very scale of perception you were afforded changed.

Let me explain. Drowned Man is the Punchdrunk company’s most recent and, to date, largest ‘immersive’ production. The audience, several hundred of us equipped with masks reminiscent of the traditional Venetian bauta, are left to roam the four levels of a former sorting office in Paddington, which has been transformed for the occasion into a heady mix of landscapes, interiors, small buildings and backstage spaces that deliberately belie the production’s scenographic nature. This fits in with the script: you are inside a Hollywood studio, wandering between shoots, witnessing disjointed scenes of a production based loosely on Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. This means that no single theatrical event is given precedence over another and the final ‘play’ you experience is one that you direct yourself.

This premise is a set designer’s dream

This premise is a set designer’s dream (and stage manager’s nightmare: in previous productions audiences used to sweep half the set clean of props, resulting in a compulsory cloakroom service) since it allows for the creation of a vast, imaginary world of interconnected, yet autonomous environments. Some of the spaces are as wide as the building, some claustrophobically small. They are populated by a great amount of paraphernalia that provides not only the setting for the imaginary lives of the cast, but also clues for the supposed cinematic production shot in the studios. And then there are snippets of events, beautifully executed choreographies of amorous couples, odd monologues, silent scenes delivered by a single actor in a room that can only hold a few visitors, all underscored by a variety of soundtracks – recorded as well as performed – that can be heard echoing through the spaces.

Actors are the only ones whose faces are revealed, and this inculcates a sense of collective voyeurism: the few of them are exposed to the many of us. Which brings me to the point about perception and scale: left in a small motel room with a single actor cutting out pieces of paper from what look like a series of advertisements – and with a decidedly Lynchian soundtrack drifting through space – you realise that there is nothing preventing you from getting as close as you want, framing the scene anyway you like and producing your own cinematic close-up within this decidedly theatrical space. I hovered over the man’s shoulder reading the articles he was shredding, my inner (or perhaps not so inner) voyeur reeling with excitement. The actor didn’t acknowledge me: he remained inside his intimate, fictional space.

Once you realise you are afforded this cinematic sense of zooming into a scene, the spaces transform. Your fellow audience members follow the cue, until you hover like a swarm of masked flies over the rotting world of failed romance and dusty – and often rusty – objects.

It could do with more performances and more labyrinthine spaces

The production is far from perfect: it could do with more performances and more labyrinthine spaces. It is also at its least interesting when you recognise the outline of the building around you, breaking the illusion of being inside a mish-mash of landscapes and buildings. There is something enticing in this transition from a once-heaving Royal Mail sorting office facility to a performance space, but the building mostly remains a muted presence: simply a container for other, theatrical architectures constructed within. Perhaps allowing for the history of the building, maybe even its use, to take a more prominent role would have enriched the production. That said, I could have happily drifted around the space as it is – or just sat in the one bar, where you can take off your mask and listen to the actors perform jazz – for the rest of the day. And as I walked out into the bright day and looked at the area around Paddington I saw it for the giant stage, or indeed film set, that it ultimately is.

Which brings another point home: the extent to which the environments we design are, by their very nature, containers of semi-orchestrated actions, often theatrical, sometimes cinematic. Architecture still grapples with how to bring to the fore this filmic aspect to everyday experience and perhaps one possible trick is precisely in the proximity one is allowed to people and objects, where the rigid structures of social conduct and corporeal space are violated for a moment at least. In closing in on things, going beyond what is socially permitted, another kind of perception potentially opens up: that of the camera lens.

  • Marko Jobst is undergraduate theory co-ordinator at the School of Architecture, Design and Construction, University of Greenwich


The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, Temple Studios, 31 London Street, London W2, until 30 December, adult £39.50


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