Seeing The Drowned Man at the Temple Studio of the National last night made me think how much movies have invaded our cultural imaginary, and not just any type of movie but musicals, and westerns and noirs, in a flimsy b-setting, but with vivid imagery and powerful emotional impact. In this production, the greatest theatrical experience of my life, theatre brings back some of that immediacy, larger-than life, deep-in-your-mind dream imagery that watching films in the dark, on a huge screen, surrounded by others but living it through alone used to do.
Here, you’re asked to don a mask and not speak, as you’re guided through a path you’re told you need not follow in the old Republic Studios at Paddington. You’re asked to travel at will, and you look through old sets, houses, shops, a saloon, forests littered with bark, empty desert. The more you look, the more you see, highly detailed letters characters have written to each other but also lists of hairdo’s to be done by hairdressing. As you walk into these spaces, performers begin to dramatise fights, dances, shoot-outs, struggles, sex, sexual display; all these ‘movie moments’ take place before your eyes, sometimes sung, sometimes danced; and it makes you think how much cinema owes to movement, choreography, song, rhythm.
The dancing featured in this show, sometimes embodied as fights, full of sharp, athletic choreography, is breath-taking, particularly when seen up-close. The mask provides a safety, a distance, like movies did; you watch, the performers know that they are being watched performing but they do not see you, just another audience member with a Donald Duck mask. The scenes shown are pulpy, erotic, old movie-clichés with a dash of Buñuel and as filtered through Lynch, particularly his Blue Velvet.
The movies have invaded our culture to such an extent, that it is now the raw material for theatre, perhaps its been so for a long time. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the power of movies diminish. First, when the cineplexes came in by the shrinking of the screen; then with safety regulations by the diminishing of the power of the darkness which in turn removed the power of the light.
If anything, movies are now more interesting than ever. But the experience of film-going, of going out to the cinema, and feeding your dreams on the light and the darkness, of being able to see without being seen, of being anonymous but part of a crowd; these are many things that the cinema has now watered down or eliminated entirely. The Drowned Man reminded me of how powerful they still can be, though now in the Theatah, sadly, and no longer at the movies.
The Drowned Man is an astonishing achievement: a whole building, a former studio, is the mise-en-scène for this play. The actors and dancers are in character doing extraordinary things with the audience very close-up and sometimes following them. The wandering audience, presented with a simulacra of movie moments yet turning that upside down by making those movie moments flesh rather than spectral shadows. Refreshments are offered in a dive with a canary singing the blues. The experience creating some of the perverse dream logic that once seemed entirely owned by movies.
I want to read Buchner’s Woyceck which ostensibly inspired the piece and I then want to see The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable again.