Standing enthusiastically by as a naked man writhes in agony might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But this is the sort of bizarre spectacle that devotees of immersive theatre group Punchdrunk sign up for. Like previous efforts including 2007’s The Masque of the Red Death, Punchdrunk’s latest venture, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, requires theatregoers to don masks and chase actors down disorienting, low-lit passageways, happening haphazardly upon non-sequential ‘scenes’. Rummaging is encouraged, talking is not. And every individual sees something different.
The Drowned Man (playing until 31 December; www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) is a delirious fever-dream, replacing dialogue with dance and abandoning most audience/actor interaction. Inspired by Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck, it explores the repercussions of infidelity in an old Paddington sorting office, recast as a hot and sticky LA, where passion and paranoia play out among elaborate film studio dressing-rooms, impoverished city streets and phone booths stuffed with the résumés of failed stars. It’s an extraordinary set, so vast and unfathomable that the play itself feels disengaged. Actors and audience are ships that pass in the night, as if neither plot nor people are connected. Having broken down the fourth wall, Punchdrunk builds a fifth one in its stead. Something of the drama is lost. But no matter — it’s the spectacle that’s the thing. In the end, Punchdrunk seems to say, film and theatre make voyeurs of us all.