Posts Tagged ‘Punchdrunk’

Just six days before seeing this I was at a ‘mash-up’ of Greek tragedies with the Trojan War as their backdrop (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2022/05/07/age-of-rage). It was spectacular, with a cohesive narrative, even though it was in Dutch! If you’d read nothing about this latest Punchdrunk immersive show before you entered, you probably wouldn’t know it too was based on the Trojan Wars. It is also spectacular, but has no cohesive narrative, which proves to be its big, almost fatal, flaw.

I consider myself a Punchdrunk veteran, having seen seven of their previous shows in the last seventeen years, so I’ve got used to what to expect. With the exception of two small scale productions, their ‘trademarks’ are an extraordinary attention to detail in the ‘installations’, short scenes with dance & movement, and an atmospheric soundscape. You’re free to navigate them as you wish, almost all being non-linear. This new show used this template, using a ‘museum’ as a jumping off point. By the time I got through this I was feeling herded and irritated; not the right disposition to enter the mind-blowing art installation that contains the performance spaces.

On this occasion, I struggled to pick up the sort of detail that fascinates me, like intriguing book titles and written pages, as the lighting seemed lower and the masks, on top of face coverings, more prohibitive. The short scenes that pop up all over the place were always compelling, sometimes enthralling, with those in the huge two-level space spectacular. The trouble is it makes no sense, so it’s like a moving painting without a story to tell. Again, I find myself full of admiration for the creativity, workmanship, logistics and performance, but after three hours I left famished by the lack of narrative drive.

Preventing photos and videos was a great move forward; if only they could deal with the audience members who feel compelled to run between locations, presumably in case they miss a key moment, who damage the carefully curated atmosphere. Punchdrunk do need to change or develop the concept or content though if they are to continue to successfully evolve, otherwise they will lose the core audience they’ve done so much to nurture and end up just playing to spectacle junkies, the runners. There was a whiff of big business about it all, not just in the ticket prices, but in the whole thing, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Given the reaction I’d picked up in advance, I was expecting to either love or hate Punchdrunk’s new show (and I’ve loved five of the previous six I’ve seen), but in the end I’m rather indifferent, largely because it’s just another Punchdrunk show. It applies the now tried & tested formula to a different setting / story, but breaks no new ground and doesn’t really move them on.

I’m told it’s the biggest, but it didn’t seem any bigger. There’s the disorienting start, the finely detailed rooms with letters and open books to read and characters emerge and enact a scene or dance or fight, then disappear again. We’re told in advance it’s based on Wozzeck, and as we enter we’re given a little note of a story about William & Mary, but you have to work hard to find whatever links there are to either. This one’s got a whole square of shops set around a fountain, lots of sand, a forest and a disused trailer park. There’s brilliantly choreographed bar room brawls and dancing and, as we’re in Temple Film Studios, a casting office, wardrobe and dressing rooms. As ever, there’s a brooding, atmospheric soundscape.

Of course, it’s another astonishing artistic and technical achievement, but it again favours the pick-and-mix approach, which means that everyone has an individual experience (except the couples and groups who just won’t split up) but it means that some leave thrilled and some leave dissatisfied. Their one ‘linear’ show – It Felt Like A Kiss, in Manchester in 2009 – was the most satisfying because it was linear. Yes, everyone got the same experience, but everyone got a rewarding experience.

If Punchdrunk continue to do more of the same, the law of diminishing returns will apply. You know what to expect, so there’s little surprise. Veterans get savvy and develop tactics rather than going with the flow (some of them were even running on Saturday!) and virgins destroy the atmosphere because they don’t know how to engage with it……and it becomes ‘another Punchdrunk show’.

It must be hard for companies like Kneehigh and Punchdrunk to ditch a formula that has brought them so much success and so many followers, but ditch it they must. The Borough at Aldeburgh last month, on a much much smaller scale, proved that they can and for me provided a more satisfying and rewarding experience than this. I’m not angry like some (I think I saw a lot), I’m just indifferent, which is probably worse. I didn’t want to leave their earlier shows, but when I got to the bar last night I was thinking ‘oh, good, a sit down and a cold beer’.

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This extraordinary adventure started when I collected my headphones and began to follow the instructions of my fisherman friend in my ears. As we walked through Aldeburgh he introduced characters from the community and told me about their tough lives. After a while music from Peter Grimes could be heard too.

My first visit was to a fisherman’s hut, somewhere he lived and worked when not at sea. At Moot Hall, the noticeboard included information about the trial of Peter Grimes. A visit to the unoccupied room of schoolteacher Ellen was interrupted by her return, requiring me to hide in the wardrobe lest she see me! Off to a lock-up to fetch some keys for my fisherman friend I encountered a rather drunken Bob Boles, the Methodist preacher.

Leaving the town, I walked on a path through the marshes to a hut. Inside, Peter’s apprentice busied himself and gave me an identical fisherman’s lucky charm to the one I’d seen in the first hut before ushering me out of the back door. I was now Peter Grimes, facing a group of vigilantes determined to get me.

Three & a half hours later I was sitting on Aldeburgh beach. The rain had stopped but the shingle was damp. A spitfire flew past a few times to remind us it was 1945 and the second world war had just ended. The continual sound of the waves was broken by the opening music of Peter Grimes. A long ramshackle set of boats and walkways faced the town and the audience.

The orchestra was recorded but the singers sang live, amplified, though you hardly knew it. You could hear every word. In a fine cast, Giselle Allen was the best Ellen I’ve ever seen, and David Kempster a wonderful Balstrode. The choruses soared and at times appeared to be coming from the sea itself. The drama gripped from the off as we moved from the court to the streets of The Borough to the pub to the chapel to the beach and to Peter’s hut.

This was the ultimate in site specific performance and my discomfort disappeared the more captivated I became. Punchdrunk on a smaller scale and opera director Tim Albery scaling new heights. A once-in-a-lifetime experience that exceeded expectations and proved to be as exhilarating as art can be.

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A few years ago Jericho House put on an extraordinary play called Katrina in a disused building. It was on Punchdrunk immersive territory with topicality and bite. I loved it, and it was the reason I booked for this site specific Tempest at St Giles Cripplegate almost exactly 400 years since it was first performed.

Sadly, it turns out to be a bog standard Tempest with little reason to be staged here. Performed mostly in the nave with seating on three sides and lit by a vast number of household lamps, it zips along but feels like they’re just desperate to get it over with. The performances aren’t particularly distinguished and the verse speaking is weak. Whatever the production, you can normally revel in the words, but not here I’m afraid. The use of period songs is very effective, but the more modern incidental music jarred with me.

I really don’t understand why they decided to put it on in a church. Though it’s clearly an atmospheric setting, it doesn’t reveal, illuminate or add anything to Shakespeare’s play. The main effect is challenging sight lines and acoustics and numb bums! Maybe I should have gone to see Ralph Fiennes after all.

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Whilst Punchdrunk attempt the spectacular with their Dr Who show in Manchester, they’re involved in more minimalist fare back here in London – and what a non-event it is.

You turn up at an address in Hoxton and are taken into a disused shop and to a dimly lit booth where you’re given cold vegetable soup and spend 20 minutes with Alfie who tells you about his life as a veg man and other members of his family. Then you leave. The location, space and the design are the only clues that immersive masters Punchdrunk have had a hand in this.

I don’t know if everyone else’s experience was as underwhelming (you’re in groups of two or three with different characters and stories), but mine certainly was. It’s apparently based on Dickens’ sketches of the same name and there is an audio walking tour which you’re encouraged to do too. It was too wet both before and after, but I did listen to the audio I’d downloaded – it didn’t add much.

Fortunately, The Geffrye Museum was next door and I hadn’t been for a long time, so the schlep to Hoxton was redeemed by their lovely period rooms and gardens (and excellent new cafe!).

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Five years ago, I was blown away by a Polish theatre company called Song of the Goat who took Edinburgh by storm with an indescribable but beautiful show of graceful organic movement with polyphonic singing.

The opportunity to see them again has been a long time coming and this time it’s a version of Macbeth (I’d call it ‘scenes from Macbeth’) with dialogue in English, but the same physicality, movement and singing. 

I think they are one of those companies, like  Kneehigh and Punchdrunk, where your first time may always be the best, but it was still a thoroughly original and enjoyable ride nonetheless.

It’s so hard to describe what they do that I’ve dried up!

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Given the difficulty I had getting a ticket, I suppose it was destined to disappoint. It was harder to get than Bryn Terfel (the world’s greatest bass-baritone) in WNO’s Die Meistersingers or the RO’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo (the world’s greatest tenor) at the Proms – but they both had a functioning and fair booking process (and cost about the same)!

This was my 5th Punchdrunk ‘immersive’ experience but the first to disappoint. They say the first time is always the best (Firebird Ball, and it was pretty terrific) but for me it was the last (It Felt Like A Kiss at last year’s Manchester International Festival, which benefited significantly from being ‘linear’). I’m also a lover / supporter of modern opera, not a member of the ‘opera as museum’ majority. The conclusion I’ve reached is that opera just doesn’t suit the form – and the audience didn’t help.

Apparently there are nine scenes to this opera on three floors of a disused office block / warehouse in Docklands, but I think I only saw four or five complete scenes totalling less than 44 minutes in the 2.75 hours I was in the building. There was one particular scene in the atrium which was never performed in the many occasions I wandered its way. What I did see was occasionally through a wall of people or ruined by audience members who seemed to think wandering amongst the players or up close with a singer was part of the experience rather than sabotaging the atmosphere, tension and drama that had hitherto existed. When a scene finished, some audience members ran after singers actors or musicians as if their life depended on it!

It was impossible to get any sense of narrative or story – in order or not – difficult to understand the sung words and hard to access the music on first hearing. Having mugged up on the story in advance, I couldn’t even work out which characters were which! All in all it was a rather frustrating and unsatisfying experience.

An experiment worth trying, but not one to attempt again. Leave the ‘immersive’ to tales best told that way – trying to make an opera fit it makes no sense at all.

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This is fast becoming an essential part of the spring cultural agenda. The problem for me is that it’s too near to stay down for a few days and too far to go for a single show. Given that what I’m interested in is also spread out over the three weeks, it often means a quick day trip taking in two shows – like this year.

Marine Parade is a play-with-music (rather than a musical) by acclaimed playwright Simon Stephens and American composer Mark Eitzel. Set in and around a seedy Brighton hotel, it tells the unrelated stories of four relationships – one crumbling, one starting, one that never got off the ground and one about to revive?

It’s well staged, superbly performed and there are some good songs. If only the first 70 minutes were as good as the last 20, which were terrific. The problem is its pace – at first, the slowness is brooding and atmospheric, but then it just becomes slow and dull. More work-in-progress than finished article, I think.

I’ve seen work by site specific specialists dreamthinkspeak twice before – very successfully at the Registry Office for Scotland in Edinburgh and less successfully at an old abattoir in the City of London. This one – Before I Sleep – is the most ambitious and as successful as the first.

They’ve taken over all four floors of the former Co-op building on London Road. The reference point is Chekov’s Cherry Orchard and you are led in by Firs, the butler from that play, who’s trying to sleep. He’s talking to you agitatedly in Russian, but soon you find yourself in a modern supermarket berated by shop assistants (still in Russian) until you are moved on. What follows is a surreal journey, at first through scenes which could be part of the play, then through a snowy landscape to adverts for new apartments and into a fully functioning department store where various household items are displayed and demonstrated (still in Russian!) and on through the (now run down) apartments and a wasteland then into long empty dark rooms with the occasional film sequence referencing back to the play.

I think it shows possible events resulting from the sale of the cherry orchard, but if you’re too literalist and focus too much on the detail you miss the extraordinary experience of the journey. I thought it was spell-binding and one of the best of its kind. We now have Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak doing site specific work on such a grand scale, so hopefully we’ll see a lot more like this.

It took 15o creators, designers, technicians and actors to put on something that only one person enters every minute!

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This is the inaugural production (if you don’t count Punchdrunk’s secret and impossible to get into Tunnel 228) in the Old Vic Tunnels under Waterloo Station. The space is extraordinarily and makes the London Bridge equivalent seem like a plush theatre! If you go there, however many layers of clothing you plan to wear add another one or two; it’s very damp and seems colder than it is outside.

It’s a promenade production and for once you don’t feel herded by marshalls destroying the effect. Twelve people are detained for reasons we (and they) don’t really understand. Supplies had been sent down but have now dried up. There is no way out. Two factions have learned to co-exist until they clash over a seemingly useless answer phone.

Though overlong at 1 hour 45 mins, it held my attention and even though the story is not explicit, that didn’t seem to matter. I’m not sure it always worked when it steered into ‘movement’ accompanied by music though. There is a sound scape, in addition to the relentless thunder of trains above your head which make the tunnels themselves vibrate, which is key to the production. There are some fine performances, particularly from Christopher Tajah.

If you prepare for the discomfort, the atmosphere of the venue adds much to the experience. This is a very welcome space for experimental work and a very creditable first shot. Well done Delirium and well done Old Vic!

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