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Not everyone loves Punchdrunk. Ticket prices are steep, the plot is often awol, and it makes your feet hurt – according to some. At 13, it’s also old hat by now, inspired by computer games and Alien War – that “total reality” phenomenon in which actors dressed as marines lead people through a set filled with puppet aliens.
Well, there’s a lot to love in Punchdrunk’s newest “immersive” piece, based on Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837), the tragedy of a tormented soldier who murders the woman he loves.
Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett have transformed an old Royal Mail sorting house into a decadent Hollywood studio. It’s 1962. There are two stories – with two Woyzecks; one male, one female – that mirror each other across three hours, four floors and more than 100 rooms. Wearing a mask, you roam where instinct leads you – a cabaret, a trailer-park, movie sets, wardrobes, rooms with wigs and props, a psychiatric ward, woods and dunes. The atmosphere is pungent, macabre, hot.
You stalk characters, snatching fragments of plot – before being sidetracked by a stuffed fawn strewn with flowers, say, or a bundle of love-letters inside a bedside drawer. Created by a team of more than 40, the design is amazingly detailed and beautiful – you can smell it, touch it. According to Barrett, some people even steal it.
Most of the action is expressed with dancing; dialogue is minimal. Characters move to a nightmarish soundtrack, punctuated by sultry teeny hits such as The Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”. A doctor humiliates his patients, directors toy with weak Hollywood hopefuls, and love boils over. It’s seedy, odorous, frightening. The performers – all good – drip with sweat. It feels supremely alive.
And plot? You stumble over enough fragments to grasp both main strands, but you cannot expect to see everything – so there’s the fear of missing out. But that’s a virtue. With too much space and too many characters to absorb in one night, the possibilities for discovery feel limitless – you find stories everywhere – which is thrilling.
Your feet might hurt, and it is an expensive evening. But you should go. You might just get tangled up in the action, put in front of a camera, knifed, kissed – anything.
nationaltheatre.org.uk; runs to December 30