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The Drowned Man
The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, production shot


Gradiva is the story of a young archeologist who buries his desires, but of course what is repressed always returns and one night he dreams of Pompeii; it is the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, and he sees his Gradiva there, the dream image of a woman depicted in a plaster-cast bas-relief, with a particular gait that fascinates him, for which he searches in the streets. He is possessed by her ‘lente festinans’. The woman in his dream lies down as if to sleep, stretched along a broad step. She dies (it is a moment for which Jacques Derrida says all historians wish: to witness the coincidence of the event with the archiving of that event). She is like a beautiful statue and a veil of ashes covers her face and soon buries her. In 1907, Freud published his essay on Gradiva and delusions and dreams. It is also a ghost story, unstable and distorted, its happy ending uncertain even when resolved. [1]

In that same year, Freud wrote a postcard from Rome to his wife, Martha. "He invited her to think of his joy in encountering––or re-encountering––after a long solitude, a beloved face. It was, however, as he remarked, a rather one-sided recognition, for the face to which he was referring was that of the bas-relief of the Gradiva, a figure stepping lightly, high up on a wall in the Vatican".[2]

106 years later, to the date, I step into a building near Paddington Station, London, for Punchdrunk's latest production, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.


My boyfriend and I, and our fellow visitors, are like young archeologists - but entering a Lynchian Hollywood set in the 60s instead of Pompeii. We don white masks and we are encouraged to explore, tease out our dreams, touch left-behind letters, open cupboards, follow characters, pay attention to the minute and the majestic. Images on the walls of the elevator that leads us up show the characters of The Drowned Man - some of the characters we'll encounter in our story.

The fable is loosely based on Woyzeck. It's a veritable labyrinth divided into four floors, one more surreal than the next.  Wearing a mask makes you - like previous Punchdrunk productions - a Greek chorus. A tragedy is definitely in the cards, perhaps not of Pompeiian proportions, but involving murder no doubt (are we lucky enough to stumble into the room at the right time? Archive the event?) But in this fantasy, the dream recurs and the roles of victim and murderer get swapped.

As soon as my boyfriend and I are out of the elevator, I open a side door and find myself alone in a cheap motel room. I feel a slight panic that I'll get lost from him so I step outside again - but he's gone.  I'm now all alone in a tawdry trailer park filled with mist. A church nearby burns with candle, a scarecrow the only figure sitting on the pews. Two young men in wife beaters rise from the mist and enter a duet that involves climbing the leafless trees. They are interrupted by a beauty who steps out of one of the trailers. The Greek chorus gathers.

Nearby, a cowboy-style bar. Also nearby: shops that sell jeans, toys, food. A cinema marquee advertises a horror film. A psychic's room. A seamstress' shop, which I explore alone and notice a red curtain at the back. Is anything back there? Slipping through the curtain brings me into a dark corridor that snakes past hanging jackets and trousers, into a film studio's costume department. I've found a way inside the Hollywood studio.

I reach Studio 5, where a scene is being shot in a kitchen. A confident, ethereal voice calls an end to the shoot. The young actor, Conrad, steps in front of me and looks up. The voice orders Conrad to come immediately to Studio 8. He drops his jacket and looks horrified.  He leaves for Studio 8 and I follow him.

Down some steps we go, into a forest.  Right at its edge, by a small trailer, he extends his hand to me - I take it. We approach the trailer and he points a small flashlight to the dusty window. Someone has written Studio 8 with their finger.  The two of us go inside and he locks the door behind us.

I take in this small space but I can't take its details - I'm too aware of his presence. He takes off my mask and pulls aside a curtain, revealing a small bed.  He pats the bed and I haul myself onto it. He extends his two hands to me and I take them.


"There was once a small boy..." he starts and begins to tell a story. His breath smells of mint. I try to pay attention to the story but it's hard - his face is so close to mine.  He leans forward and gently whispers something into my ear. (What did he say?)  He pulls aside another curtain and aims his flashlight to a red thread that leads into a secret passage.  Down we go into the dark, his flashlight our only guide. We enter a vast subterranean space (an old underground parking lot?)  His flashlight follows the red thread. He holds me close to him. The thread rises to the ceiling, he turns me around and now we are walking backwards, staring up.  Suddenly the thread ends, hanging above our heads.  He spins me around and...

There's a dead horse.

He rushes me away, hyperventilating. He takes me to a door where there's a picture on the floor - a Hollywood glamour shot of an actor.  The eyes have been gouged out.  He replaces my mask, opens the door and pushes me out, into the path of another member of the audience. The door slams shut and we hear him scream.  The lady tries to open the door but there's no handle, no way back inside.

I continue my explorations. Will I see Conrad again?  There's another trailer park, and a party taking place. The studio's star is a woman in red sequin, receiving attention from all the men, even one in drag who seems to be aping her. There's a young pretender who is celebrating her birthday (my heart goes out to her as it's also my birthday). She loves one of the young men - a short, dark-haired man - but it's clear he's having an affair with the studio star.  Tragedy surely just round the corner.

Whenever a character wanders off, the crowd of white masks runs after them. I go the opposite direction. I like exploring rooms by myself. Piecing together the story through the letters left on desks (Punchdrunk love a desk), discovering the secret passages that always lead to a voodoo box. (Is this production referencing Punchdrunk's Faust from some years ago - that you need a pact with the devil to make it in Hollywood?)

I see Red Sequin lady again, running up and down a white hill with her dark-haired lover.  Later, they are in a party with many others in a room that seems to have been designed by Salvador Dali and his clothes get ripped off his body.  She straddles him and an orgy breaks out.

From the behind the walls of Studio 3 I can hear music. The signs say that filming has ended in there. Is there a way inside Studio 3? How do I get there? Or are those just speakers pouring through the walls the ghost of a party?

An older man paints his face in the artists' dressing room. Nearby, Red Sequin lady tells off a young actress who's wearing glasses. Red Sequin lady walks off and takes the Greek chorus with her - leaving me alone with bespectacled girl.  Bespectacled girl puts on a black fur coat and takes off.  I follow.  Down more steps we go, collecting some ghosts along the way. Suddenly she stops and spins around, staring straight at me.  She approaches and whispers into my ear: "Have you ever danced with a stranger in the dark?"  I shake my head.  She opens a door, takes me inside by the hand and locks it after us.


It's completely dark. I can't adjust my eyes, I can't see anything.  We dance stiffly to the drone noise that covers this floor.  I can hear rustling nearby, there's someone else in there with us.  She places my hand on someone's shoulder and hands me over to them.  We hold hands - it's a man.  We continue to dance, even more stiffly, awkwardly holding each other's hands.  He's got sour breath.

The lights flicker on. I'm dancing with another audience member, a young japanese guy.  Bespectacled girl stands nearby, beside a mannequin and a man dressed as a doctor.  They lead us to the door and slam it shut after we are out.

I'm now more determined than ever to find Studio 3.  I turn left instead of right and there it is - it's a long bar with many tables and even a stage with a live band.  All the Greek chorus are required to remove their masks.  Many sit by themselves and watch everyone who walks in (are you the friend I lost at the beginning, when I opened that motel bedroom door and got lost from you?)  I order a beer and find a table.

Conrad walks in with a young woman.  They take to the stage and perform a magic trick, where she climbs into a box and gets many stakes poked in (without hurting her, of course, though she does lose all her clothes).  Conrad gives me a brief look as he walks past my table afterwards.

I finish my beer and step outside again.  Did I miss anything?  Wait, the stairs go up one more floor?  What's up there?  A floor covered entirely in sand.  A naked man shouting to the wind and flinging sand up in the air, covering himself completely with it (I remember someone tweeting months ago "the sand must get inside everything".) More scarecrows on pews, more voodoo. And a shrouded figure who must be death.

At the end of this desert is a flickering neon motel sign half sunk into a dune.  A romantic couple arrive and climb the dune.  Are they overlooking Los Angeles?  He holds her from behind and then... he strangles her until she's dead.  Her body falls onto the sand and sinks through it.

The lights go out, it's time to follow the Greek chorus down to one of the main rooms, where the final performance takes place. Everyone is gathered together. Some of the walls fall away, the dancers pick members of the audience to dance with.  We clap and follow them into Studio 3. A banner hangs above the tables: "It's a Wrap!"


[1] & [2] A London Fantasy, by Sharon Kivland
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