The Drowned Man | An exercise in epistemology

Discussing The Drowned Man with my s.o. (I loved it, he was enraged by it) we soon finished our “did we have fun” and “did we understand it” arguments and moved on to the nature and scope of knowledge. This is good art in my humble opinion. The type that makes you question and discuss the very basis of how you view the world.

The Drowned Man is the latest journey by Punchdrunk, an immersive theatre company. You will visit Temple Studios and the wasteland beyond it, witnessing simultaneous threads by characters who move about the spaces, grow, descent into madness, watch helplessly from the sidelines. The quiet desperation, the rise to stardom, the plastic smiles.

Yes, it is all as sinister as the trailer above suggests.

In the real world Punchdrunk have taken over an old building next to Paddington station, dressed it all up, choreographed the cast to do things inside the space and then each evening turn the audience (wearing sinister white masks) loose. What play you see is entirely up to your own choices. Even though there are two central plot-lines mirroring each other, you might just see something else. You might choose to follow one character, two, none at all. You may open an interesting door and spend quite a lot of time reading letters and postcards. You might – quite suddenly – be grabbed by one of the cast who will kiss you or give you a gift or whisper part of the story to you.

Admittedly this is a vast space, with many threads to follow, both in terms of cast and in terms of rooms and clues. It is easy to feel disengaged, to lose the plot, to become simply enraged by the fact that you need to run around, desperately trying to discern what the heck is going on. Personally I loved this. In my mind there was not one play, I basically saw a play that nobody else saw that night, and it was valid. If my choices has led me to another play, that would have been valid too.

Thinking about it, at times it felt as if I was back in the glorious days of adventure games. This was MYST (with people) and ZORK NEMESIS (only more sinister). Walking around the dark corridors, touching the walls, reading the letters, this was what I had dreamed off when I was playing those games, only better.

Head on over to EuroGamer for an excellent article on how theatre and gaming collide in this Punchdrunk production: At the gates of Temple Studios: Where gaming and theatre collide.

The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man

Logistics wise The Drowned Man is disappointing. There was a huge queue (even with pre-booked tickets) and only two people serving at the Box Office. All members of the audience MUST leave all coats and bags behind (£1 per item) even though the management will not accept responsibility for any lost/ damaged items (I call that bloody cheek).  You walk around for about two and a half/ three hours and apparently there is a bar somewhere (we failed to find it and then learned that it was closed for a while).

You are also made to wear those masks. Now, don’t get me wrong, they are brilliant on three counts. Firstly they are bloody scary (dark corridor, silence, ominous music, then this grotesque mask comes towards you out of the blue). Secondly they are a very powerful symbol of the spectator around the action. Thirdly they turn normal people into bastards. I was fascinated by how people felt quite entitled to stand over the shoulder of the actor and step in front of another member of the audience without so much as a by-your-leave. I actually moved someone aside at some point.

The fundamental philosophical question about The Drowned Man is this: Do you believe in one absolute truth that guides you to catharsis?

“Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play] and [represented] by people acting and not by narration, accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”

(via: Poetics by Aristotle)

Or, in other words, do you believe in the one truth, acquired by scientific observation or are you more in the relativist camp? 

My brilliant companion and I agreed in the end that both being a product of our education in scientific inquiry (and our ethics of course) it would have been impossible to judge The Drowned Man in the same way. The things that made me appreciate and admire it, were the same things that enraged him.

An interesting conundrum. Which, for me at least, warrants another visit.

Disclosure: Saw The Drowned Man on 04 May 2014 and we paid for our tickets in full. No prior discussion with the theatre took place.
The Drowned Man 
By Punchdrunk and the National Theatre 
Until July 3, 2015 

One thought on “The Drowned Man | An exercise in epistemology”

  1. I went to see this with my friends on Thursday. What a fantastic experience, mind boggling. I highly recommend this to anyone. Personally my favourite cast members were The Gatekeeper, Wendy, The Barman and Alice.

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