We’re trying to build a parallel universe,” says Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk, as we pick our way through a maze of corridors. “For a few hours inside the walls, you forget that it’s London 2013 and slip into this other place.”
It’s six years since Punchdrunk, the pioneering immersive theatre company, last did a show in London. Now they’re back, with the biggest piece they have ever done: The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, inspired by Georg Büchner’s 1837 play Woyzeck. They’ve come close, says Barrett, but never found a building vast enough to house the scale of show they want to attempt. Until now. Barrett strides through it with the glee of a child given the freedom of a castle. “It needs to be big enough for a large audience to get lost and be alone,” he says.
It is certainly that. The building is a former postal sorting office: a huge red-brick edifice with the forlorn dignity and eerie emptiness of a once-bustling hub that has lost its purpose. I trot closely behind Barrett, glancing warily into the immense, dimly lit chambers that stretch away like the sort of desolate car parks where spies get bumped off in films.
Why, I ask, once we are seated in a dilapidated office, does he want to lose his audience? Barrett, whose flowing hair and gentle demeanour give him the air of a mischievous magician, explains: “We’re trying to break the formulaic conventions of going to the theatre. At the theatre you’re in a pack. There is safety in numbers. We want the audience to feel the rug has been pulled and they’re having to make conscious decisions about what to do next. And there’s nothing like apprehension to get the synapses firing. Once you’ve had that beat of slight rising concern, then you’re there in the space, you’re active, you’re part of it ... It’s all about presence.”
When they emerged, 13 years ago, Punchdrunk led the charge for a wave of immersive, experiential theatre that plunged audience members into the drama with the characters. Exhilarating Punchdrunk shows such as Faust (2006), The Masque of the Red Death (2007) and Sleep No More (which ran for two years in New York) filled disused spaces with room after room of astonishingly intricate detail, then sent audience members off on their own private magical journey to piece together the story. Such narrative and textural richness requires stringent planning: Barrett shows me a leather-bound book full of shorthand notes. With The Drowned Man, a co-production with the National Theatre, he hopes to draw on experience.
“We’ve learnt, from having the show on in New York for two years, that we want to make the shows so dense that no matter how many layers of soil you scrape away there’s always something new to be found,” he says. “So audiences can follow the main narrative or peel off and explore space. It’s only with a space of this size that we can do that.”
But while the show is a departure for Punchdrunk in terms of scale, it’s also a return to the company’s roots. Woyzeck was Barrett’s final project at university: the play “created Punchdrunk”, he explains, because its unfinished state prompted him to find a staging that matched Büchner’s splintered text.
“Büchner died before he finished it and just left a series of scenes with no order. And it doesn’t really matter which order you digest them in – still the conclusion is inevitable and it’s always the same. That is the Punchdrunk way.”
Punchdrunk, and similar companies, inhabit an interesting space in contemporary culture. Often moving into a deserted warehouse, factory or office, they bring to life a new, imaginary landscape inside the shell of what was once a working reality. Meanwhile, they offer a visceral alternative to the quick-fix, touch screen interaction of our technology-heavy world. And they offer a sensory response to the virtual playground.
“You get out of it what you put in,” says Barrett. “It becomes something that’s yours and yours alone. And it’s real: you’re not interacting with a pixel. The performers actually touch the audience.”
In a sense, perhaps, such intense promenade theatre is the contemporary dramatic equivalent of a fairytale forest: a dark, fantastical place that offers disturbing encounters and journeys of self-discovery. But popularity is not without its drawbacks. The huge increase in immersive theatre has rendered it more familiar: it’s harder now to surprise. Mindful of this, Punchdrunk have, like their audiences, rambled off on paths of exploration, recently staging a children’s show (The Crash of the Elysium), an opera (The Duchess of Malfi) and experimenting with technology. Throughout June, The Borough offers a Peter Grimes-inspired solo journey around Aldeburgh.
Not everything has worked, and Punchdrunk’s involvement in commercial projects – the launch of a new lager and a Louis Vuitton shop – have raised some eyebrows. But Barrett argues that, aware of the danger of complacency, they have been testing out new ideas.
“I think this [The Drowned Man] is quite old-fashioned,” he says. “This is the format that we actually put aside for the past six years while we were trying to innovate and take some risks. This is like going back to an old friend because it feels the right time to do it and we can employ lots of things we’ve learnt. But it feels quite safe territory for us – audience in masks, free-roaming, building their own narrative.”
The next move, he suggests, is to try to melt the boundaries between the real world and fiction still further, mingling performance with everyday life: “What happens if you take theatre out of the building and scatter it across town?” he asks. “What happens if the show lasts for three days? Or for three months? It’s about removing the comfort zone.”
He had a personal taste of this when his company organised his prenuptial bachelor party. Rather than blur reality through booze, they did it through theatre, sending him clues and tasks over months, and finally kidnapping him. “I was given challenges but I couldn’t tell where the next one would come from,” he recalls. “So I got home one day and my cat bounced up, as it normally does, but it was wearing a collar I’d never seen before, engraved with a challenge ... It shifted your perspective because anybody walking down the road could be part of the show. You see everything with new eyes.”
A public version of this, Punchdrunk Travel, which would whisk audiences away for days, is still bubbling under, as the company work out the practicalities of making it affordable. They think they have just about cracked it, says Barrett, beaming with anticipation.
“It would be too easy to settle,” he adds. “We’d never want to be a gimmick.”
‘The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable’, Temple Studios, 31 London Street, London, June 20-December 30. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
‘The Borough’ runs to June 23, Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk. www.aldeburgh.co.uk