Why Punchdrunk’s latest left me cold

Sophie Bortolussi (Wendy) in Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man - A Hollywood Fable. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Sophie Bortolussi (Wendy) in Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man - A Hollywood Fable. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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What is it that you love about theatre? For some it’s the thrill of the live experience, for others the spectacle.

For me what makes theatre the best of all art forms is the human connection at its heart. This is why, as impressive as the new Punchdrunk show is, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable has left me cold.

I'm not alone in this and the reviews have been mixed. The underlying impression appears to be ‘same old, same old’. As Susannah Clapp succinctly puts it “This is billed as Punchdrunk's biggest show, but the expansion is of square feet rather than imagination”.

The Drowned Man is strangely unsatisfying and for me this is because of what I perceive as an increasing shift of focus within Punchdrunk's work from creating human connections to building movie set worlds.

Although Clapp and other reviewers mention fleeting interactions with The Drowned Man, I and people I spoke to afterwards didn't experience any. This isn't to say things aren't continually going on all around you and there is a pleasure and a responsibility in searching them out. But for even the most confident my sense throughout was of that the type of voyeurism being encouraged was disempowering rather than thrilling.

As soon as you enter this playground, you are told you are not allowed to speak with the performers or each other. Suddenly the fourth wall feels as tangible as it does in the darkened proscenium arch. Dancers devour each other with their eyes and hands, but look through you as though you are invisible. I'm not asking to be duetted with, but a little contact would do so much to enable the actual thing live up to the heart-racing promise of this production's electric trailer.

Over the years, my defining memory of Punchdrunk is of a moment of human connection and talking to others it seems a common thread - being separated from your group by a new found friend who is later revealed as a performer; getting blood painted down your face with ritualistic intensity; being led by the hand into the quiet, dark corner of the room. These moments are what Punchdrunk should be nurturing. It is not the size of the experience that matters, its what you do within it - create dreamlike spaces within which to encourage unexpected yet startlingly tangible mini-relationships.

Recently, at an art gallery I was grumbling to a friend as we watched a performance by a sculptor being utterly ignored by a Private View audience. "But this isn't theatre, it's fine art" she said "It's not about creating something with the audience for her".

She's right of course. But if Punchdrunk want to continue moving forward they need to remember that for theatre makers, this connection is paramount. It cannot be left by the wayside - however beautiful that wayside may be.

The Drowned Man runs until the end of December 2013 at Temple Studios.