One of the most frustrating things in life is waking from a fantastical dream and sitting powerless as the memory seeps out of your mind and faraway in a matter of moments. Perhaps a flash, an image, will strike you as you go about your daily routine and suddenly you are transported back into that strange world but it is only a matter of seconds before you are cruelly pushed back down into reality.
This kind of experience is really the only way I can describe becoming part of a Punchdrunk performance. Even now five years on, I am still struck by moments I encountered during their Masque of the Red Death production that I thought I had long forgotten. A man I gave a gold coin to in exchange for a cloak. Having my future told to me by a lady in red. Glancing into a mirror only to find a ghost in a skull-like mask staring back at me. To attend a Punchdrunk show is to become Alice in Wonderland, unleashed into the dream world and able to indulge in every childish fantasy and fear.
Like awakening from a dream then, and frantically scribbling down its fragmented pieces before they too fade away, I am determined to record last night’s experience of Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man before it too vanishes in the midst of ordinary life. Set in the fictional Temple Studios, Punchdrunk’s old Hollywood inspiration is the perfect setting for its dream factory, as if someone held out their hand from the cinema screen and pulled you in. Blonde bombshells sweep past and wasted beauties sit smoking outside their trailers in desperate pursuit of their own dreams.
Inspired by the teachings of theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski, Punchdrunk strive for theatre as a spiritual encounter, destroying the actor-spectator boundary in order to create a shared experience between the two factions. Simply put, when a man dressed a sad clown bursts out from what you thought was an empty trailer and holds out his hand to you, you take it. When he asks you, completely alone in this claustrophobic tin can, to take off the mask each audience member wears and sit opposite him on the tiny bed, you do it. Your stomach is churning and yet you trust him. That is the beauty of a Punchdrunk encounter.
The clown tells you a sad story about a boy who was the only living thing left on Earth. Feeling lonely, he embarks on a voyage to other planets but only finds death and destruction there. The story ignites a vague feeling of recognition within you but before you can delve any further into these memories, the clown has become excited by a piece of red string that hangs from the ceiling. He shines a torch on it gleefully and pulls you along to follow the piece of string. You leave the confines of the trailer behind and begin walking through utter darkness, the only sound the echo of your footsteps.
The space seems huge, and you wonder how far you have come until suddenly the clown stops, our piece of string finally has come to an end. Cautiously he moves the torch upwards and the light unveils before us a dead horse, so lifelike that you feel sick and dizzy at the sight of it. The clown is horrified and before you can even catch breath the booming voice of the director begins to rumble all around us like the voice of Oz but we are too terrified to hear what it says. “Run!” cries the clown and we race back into the blackness.
You’ve no idea how long you’ve been running for but suddenly you are back inside the trailer. The clown is calmer. He puts your mask back on and strokes it. He says, almost sadly, “The world is upside down…”
“Yeah!” you manage to gasp between heavy breaths. Maybe he was expecting a more philosophical response because the next thing you know, you’re booted out of the trailer and the door is slammed behind you.
I waited outside the trailer for a long time after that. I’m not sure what I was waiting for. The rest of my Punchdrunk experience was a kaleidoscope of haunting images, a surreal carnival of violence and debauchery. A gangster showdown upon a chessboard floor. A funeral in the desert held entirely by scarecrows. A girl dancing hypnotically amongst the trees outside a churchyard, illuminated by an eerie blue light. Exploring the labyrinth of hidden treasures, sometimes running, sometimes crawling, I felt an energy that I only had as a child.
I looked for the clown but I did not see him again. I even walked back to where I thought the trailer had been but it was all locked up, as if what we had shared together had never happened. “Did it happen?” I began to ask myself uncertainly. Wandering out of Temple Studios and onto a busy London street, there was now only one thing I felt certain of; for when dreams become reality and reality becomes a dream, the world is indeed upside down…