11 August 2013

The Drowned Man at Temple Studios was grand but oversold

I went to see, or participate in, The Drowned Man with unusually high expectations.Not only did I see some reviews beforehand for a change but they were all very positive too. City AM, admittedly not known for its arts reviews, went as far as to call it "The year’s most spectacular theatrical extravaganza". I guess they do not get out much.

There is certainly much to admire. The scale is beyond impressive and the attention to detail is obsessive.

The event takes place over four floors (I think) that are divided into several dark and confusing places that you can walk around and through in any order that you like.

Some of the spaces are just bonkers. Places like the caravans in the woods which had several full-size caravans, lots of trees and enough bark on the floor to be a convincing woodland. Another space had sand and elsewhere there were some cars.The buildings I encountered included shops, bars, a kitchen, barbers, and studio dressing rooms. There were a lot more places that I found and a lot more that I am sure that I did not find. It was vast and hugely impressive.

Equally impressive was the intention to detail with all the spaces crammed full of things in the smallest detail from tins of peas to letters and from chess sets to drugs. To give just one example of the many many, in the doctor's surgery there were a lot of questionnaires on clipboards that had been completed, and on one of these the answer given to "what do you do after sex?" was "watch Grandstand". Just brilliant.

The vast size of the place and the masses of things to look at meant that the three hours of the performance was nothing like enough to see, or even to find, everything and so we all had to be selective on what we did and what we watched.

The one part that seemed to make any sense was the bar. A real bar where we could have a drink and relax with our masks off (we were all wearing Viennese masks, as you do). That semblance of reality slipped a little when one of the actors recognised me as one of the stars of a musical, Love Boat, and announced my presence to the whole bar.

We encountered several other actors in our wanderings, easily recognisable because they were not wearing masks, and they played out several little scenes for us, often passionate dances that veered towards fights.

What I found missing from this was any semblance of a narrative, let alone the double-murder one the brief guidance notes led us to expect. If The Drowned Man was trying to tell a story then it fell miserably but if it was just trying to immerse us in different worlds then it worked fine.

For scale it easily outclass the similar show In The Beginning was The End that I saw at Somerset House in March but I much preferred the earlier show because of its narrative, humour and sheer beauty in one of the scenes.

The Drowned Man had scale, complexity and a wealth of detail but it lacked direction and it lacked variety. It was still very impressive, just not as impressive as I expected.

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