Heads Above Water

I make no apologies for a very ‘British’ post today. One of my favourite theatre companies, Punchdrunk (I’ve mentioned them here a few times before) are about to open a new show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.


My friend and colleague Sara saw their production of Faust and still rates it as one of the best pieces of theatre she has ever seen. In The Observer today Liz Hoggart writes a profile of Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s founder and artistic director.

Felix Barrett: the visionary who reinvented theatre

The founder of the Punchdrunk company has no time for stages or even seats. Their ‘immersive’ style has had huge influence in theatre and beyond. And their new show is their most ambitious yet

‘We’re trying to build a parallel universe,” explains Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk. “For a few hours inside the walls, you forget that it’s London 2013 and slip into this other place.”

Felix Barrett Punchdrunk

An elfin 35-year-old, with long, straggly hair and beard, Barrett is the man who changed British theatre, when he set up Punchdrunk in 2000, pioneering a form of “immersive” or “promenade” theatre. Their latest show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, a walk-through tour of a seedy 1960s film studio, opens to the critics this month.

The three-hour performance will play out over four floors of a former sorting office next to Paddington station, west London. Co-directed by Barrett and long-time associate Maxine Doyle, and inspired by Georg Büchner’s anti-war fable, Woyzeck, it’s their first major London show for six years, and biggest to date. It has, Barrett admits, the budget of a small film.

Punchdrunk want to take immersive theatre to a whole new level. A night in their company doesn’t involve a stage, a programme, an ice cream at the interval – or even a seat. They find empty buildings, fill them with richly detailed sets and performers and then set the audience loose – wearing masks. The thrill comes from not knowing what’s round the corner or how you’ll react when you find it. “In the theatre, you sit there closeted and you switch off part of your brain because you’re comfortable,” says Barrett. “If you’re uncomfortable, then suddenly you’re eager to receive.”

Even if you’ve never seen one of their wildly inventive shows, you will have felt their influence through advertising, music videos and festivals. Everyone these days wants to copy the Punchdrunk magic. The Drowned Man has already sold 50,000 tickets. For the next five months, a cast of 34 dancers and actors will lead 600 people a night around 200,000 sq ft of warehouse.


Arguably Punchdrunk attract people who would normally run a mile from high-concept theatre. Their influences come from B movies, computer gaming and gothic novels. “It’s theatre for people who like theatre but don’t particularly like theatres,” says Colin Robertson, TV editor of theSun, an early fan. “Punchdrunk is theatre for the warehouse party generation. It has that DIY, chaotic feel about it that is so far removed from traditional stuffy theatre.”

Punchdrunk’s promenade productions have included Faust (where audiences explored an east London tobacco warehouse filled with scenes from Goethe’s play), The Masque of the Red Death (based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, staged in Battersea Arts Centre), andThe Duchess of Malfi (a collaboration with English National Opera in old pharmaceutical premises in Docklands). But it was their off-Broadway hitSleep No More – a spin on Macbeth that’s still packing audiences into a former warehouse in New York – that brought them celebrity attention.

The New York Times called it “a voyeur’s delight. Messes with your head as thoroughly as any artificial stimulant. Spectacular!” About 200,000 people have attended, including Justin Timberlake and Matt Damon. In many ways, Punchdrunk became the Banksy of the theatre world.

They’ve spawned countless imitators – from Secret Cinema and Gideon Reeling (Punchdrunk’s sister company) to You Me Bum Bum Train. Also, Rupert Goold’s Headlong company (EnronThe Effect) emerged at the same time.

Barrett founded Punchdrunk after studying drama at Exeter University. Dissatisfied with conventional venues, he fell in love with site-specific theatre. He staged an immersive take on the proto-expressionist masterpiece Woyzeck in an old Territorial Army barracks in Exeter as part of his theatre degree finals. The police turned up – “with dogs and everything,” he recalls fondly.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Along with Shunt, Punchdrunk led the charge for a wave of immersive, experiential theatre that aims to erase the fourth wall as much as possible. From the start, Barrett and his team knew how to create interventions on an outrageously grand scale with minimal resources, recalls David Benedict, London theatre critic for Variety. “Fringey sounds like they were a bit silly and small and fiddled around on the fringes. From the start, they were a bunch of people with quite a big idea and they pursued it with a) great imagination and b) rigour. They weren’t the first people to do site-specific, far from it, but they were the first to be bold enough to think big. The fact that they didn’t have any money released them in a weird way.”

The National’s director, Nicholas Hytner, was an early supporter. In 2005, he attended The Firebird Ball, inspired by Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in a disused south London factory. “I was suspicious when I was made to put on my white mask,” he says. “Maybe I was right to be. It turned out to represent the polar opposite of everything I’ve ever been able to do in the theatre and I was totally exhilarated – high on every moment of it.”

Hytner’s decision to have the National endorse the company led to their breakthrough show, 2006’s Faust, occupying five floors of a Wapping warehouse, and, a year later, The Masque of the Red Death.

It was this talent for getting into bed with very smart co-producers that set Punchdrunk apart, says Benedict. “It gave them the clout and the heft and the publicity. They never did upstairs rooms. When they did The Masque of The Red Death in 2007, they had the whole of the Battersea Arts Centre. And that was a very fashionable producing house because they’d already created mega-hit Jerry Springer: The Opera.”

In 2009, the Old Vic and Punchdrunk collaborated on a show in Tunnel 228 with contemporary artists underneath Waterloo station. It became more than a hit show, it became one of the “must-see” experiences in the capital.

Punchdrunk’s rise has coincided with audiences becoming much more adventurous over the past decade. It’s tricky to define cause and effect. Punchdrunk have driven the wish for something bold, but they also emerged at a time when audiences were tiring of sitting down in front of a proscenium arch before slipping out for the interval drink. And Punchdrunk became a byword for all that was different from that tradition.

Barrett gives little away about his personal life. We know he’s married to Kate, a media producer at the Tate, with a child. Although, touchingly, he reveals his company organised his “prenuptial bachelor party” (also known as a stag do) as a theatrical event, a journey that started with a key in the post and ended with 30 men in masks kidnapping him and forcing him to unlock a trunk full of his most embarrassing possessions. “It was the best show I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” says Barrett.

The darlings of British theatre have their critics, of course. TheGuardian‘s Michael Billington queried the “fairground shock tactics” of It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), their collaboration with documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, and musician Damon Albarn for the Manchester international festival, calling it “a real dog’s dinner of a show”. And theDaily Telegraph said of their 2010 foray into experimental opera, The Duchess of Malfi, that “the bag of tricks [was] looking increasingly jejune”.

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

“The trouble with a lot of site-specific theatre is it’s posh haunted house, with people rushing at you in corridors,” says Benedict. “When it works, you forget that, but it needs to be done with theatrical rigour.”

There have also been accusations of selling out. They have done corporate pieces for Stella Artois and W Hotels, while, at Sleep No More,tickets sell for $100, with programmes at $20. In London, with the National Theatre as co-producer, tickets for The Drowned Man are £39.50 to £47.50. Barrett claims sponsorship funds the experimentation, stressing that, as a charity, the company ploughs the money back. But they have, he concedes, paid attention to the bad press.

There is a sense that The Drowned Man needs to be a critical hit to restore some flagging confidence. Says Benedict: “The first time you go to a Punchdrunk show, it blows your head off, but the trouble is it’s a bit of a cliche if you’re relying on no one having seen it before. ”

In wider terms, perhaps we may see a return to straight theatre after a decade of playful deconstruction. Even if this happens, Punchdrunk will have made a fundamental mark – shaking up theatre and routine practice like none of their peers.

In another interview last week in The Independent entitled All the disused building’s a stage: Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is their most ambitious show yet,  Barrett talks to Alice Jones about why they keep pushing the boundaries.

The show is currently in preview so there are no official reviews. However here is one unofficial written by a member of a preview audience. The twittersphere  likes it too!


THE PUNCHDRUNK FILE (Courtesy of Liz Hoggart and The Observer)

Born Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett. His regular collaborator is choreographer Maxine Doyle. They have come to be seen as the leading lights of a form of “immersive theatre”, where the audience is not seated but is freer to roam the performance site.

Best of times Their Hitchockian take on MacbethSleep No More, staged off-Broadway in 2011, seduced Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake to join the masked revels.

Worst of times Punchdrunk’s involvement in the launch of a new lager and a Louis Vuitton shop in central London raised eyebrows. Directing the Colombian pop diva Shakira’s world tour was, Barrett admits, “a tough experience”.

What they say “We aim to provide the quality of the West End while avoiding packing the audiences in like sardines.”

What others say “Punchdrunk have provided some of my most exciting dramatic experiences over the past decade. We are delighted to be working with them again in London after a six-year gap while they wowed New York; I can’t wait to see their new theatrical adventure.” Nick Hytner


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