There is a door in an East London alley which opens into a plush apartment somewhere in Paris. The walls are plastered with family photographs and sunkissed postcards, the detritus of several lives still in-progress lie all around. A crowded party is just gearing up towards full swing, attended by a few people you know and many you don’t. There is beer on tap, and something very bad is about to happen.
You’re really stepping into an extension of Stella Artois’ Francophilic TV ad campaign, a hideous cartoon world of smarmy, besuited men pursued by bebeehived sexpots. However, past a few complimentary pints of their high-class lager (now available under yet another meaningless new label), the 45-minute-ish show has nothing to do with Stella. This is just as well, because it is also the latest work from ‘immersive’ theatre company Punchdrunk and, despite the seedy commercial connection, may be their most successful to date.
Punchdrunk have been experimenting for some years now by letting audiences wander freely through the dramas they create, attempting to blur the border between reality and fiction. So far their experiments have mostly been failures, held back by the compulsory masking of all attendees. Intended to dissolve self-consciousness amongst the audience and free them to get involved with the performance, it only reinforced the distinction between the two, killing any real chance of confusion. You may watch the action from an unusual perspective, but can always be confident about exactly who is watching who.
With two recent productions, each derived from television, the troupe has started to break through this barrier by actually absorbing the audience into the performance. Their Doctor Who themed show at the Manchester International Festival is doing it for children, plunging them straight from a dull museum exhibition into a real-life alien crash site and beyond, in a way seemingly calculated to encourage irreparable psychological damage. The Black Diamond does essentially the same thing but for adults, and with more beer.
As you enter the party and examine the thronging crowd you see an odd mixture of poncy, drunken young people from 1960s France and poncy, drunken young people from 2010s London. A combination of talented acting and vintage fashion trends makes telling one from the other a difficult feat, which absorbs most of the evening. Are those girls giggling in the bath actresses playing a scene, or just smartarse audience members joining in? Is that a real couple clinching intimately on the sofa, or should I sidle up and try to eavesdrop on a crucial plot development? The performers do everything they can to help confuse matters, secretly enlisting the more suitably-dressed audience members to pose as actors, while some are themselves disguised as modern-day audience members.
Previous Punchdrunk shows have compromised their reality/fantasy disruption by veering too much into the abstract. Their fascinating, meticulous sets housed no characters or drama resembling anything that might be seen in the world outside, given over entirely to tortured symbolism, rather too-direct David Lynch ‘homage’ and interpretive dance. It always felt like the company was overcompensating a bit – signposting their work as ‘high’ art out of fear that someone might confuse it with lower forms of semi-improvised interactive drama. In the process they only made the line between audience and performance all the clearer – naked opera singers engaging in highly choreographed experimental dance may have an artistic value in itself, but is beyond what most people encounter in everyday life.
Black Diamond, a commercial venture contrived by a subset of the company, seems to be freed from this hobbling self-awareness, allowing them to create a more tangibly interactive experience. At times it feels like nothing so much as falling into a real-life computer game – not only do you roam freely through the environment but, unlike in previous shows, the actors only really act or interact if you approach them. Engage them in conversation and they will respond in character, revealing plot points only if you play along in kind, which leads to many disconcerting pauses as you struggle to think of the right coded phrase to progress the story.
Based on the infamous ‘Black Orlov’ diamond, several owners of which supposedly committed suicide in the 20th century, the stock noir-esque tale will only be fully revealed if you actively pursue its various threads yourself. This makes it all the more involving as you talk to various characters, hints slowly forming a picture of dark undercurrents beneath the evening’s glamorous veneer. An impending sense that something bad has happened, is happening, or is just about to happen somewhere in these rooms grows throughout, driving you to find out what and to whom.
Ultimately the chaotic form and sheer overcrowding makes following a narrative, or even clearly hearing speech, quite difficult. A complete picture of events can only be pieced together after the fact from secondhand reports, as would be the case after a real party. That chaos is necessary, as it’s what lets the company dissolve the line between reality and drama more effectively than ever before.
The Black Diamond is the first real evidence that Punchdrunk’s research into waking nightmares may finally be living up to its promise. Tickets for the party scene itself are sold out, but the bulk of the show is set to be held ‘on the streets’ of East London (and, apparently, in certain phone boxes) over the next month or two. More importantly, Punchdrunk are apparently planning to expand broadly in this direction in the future, presenting dramas in the form of short-term holidays – trips from A to B along which what is real and what is part of the show will never be totally apparent. Irreparable psychological damage to be anxiously expected.