I went to see the Punchdrunk production, The Drowned Man today. It is a truly spectacular show and well worth seeing if you happen to be in London, especially if you have never been to a Punchdrunk performance before. I used to work for them when they were starting out and still willing to use enthusiastic amateurs!
The format of the show is similar to that of past productions in that there is a central narrative, this time loosely adapted from Woyzeck (several different Shakespeare plays and an Edgar Allen Poe short story, The Masque of the Red Death, have been the bases of previous pieces). This narrative then unfolds in a large space, a warehouse, office or industrial building, with different scenes being blocked into different areas of that building. You are free to travel wherever you like. The actors tend to be on set throughout. You can follow one character, watching them whether they are performing with other members of the cast or not; you can hop from character to character or you can just explore the space, watching performers if and when they appear. All the audience are masked and asked to remain completely silent. The result is an experience by turns liberating, empowering, thrilling and terrifying. As I say, it is something to behold.
Now, having been to quite a few Punchdrunk shows before, I started to wonder about the use of narrative in this way and its aptness to the form. One criticism that people have leveled at them in the past is that it can be mighty hard to follow what the heck is going on when you might be three floors away for all the key scenes. That is part of the rationale behind using the kinds of stories mentioned above. The idea is that if you are already familiar with the shape of the story you will know where you are in it and who you are watching, even if you haven't seen what came before and are going to miss what comes after. Another way they have tried to tackle this problem is to loop the narrative several times within a performance. That way you could follow say, Romeo one loop, Juliet another and hang out with the priest for the third.
These solutions are undoubtedly a help but they don't really confront the underlying issue, which is that those narratives were written for a different form. They have to be heavily adapted and tweaked in order to fit. I would like to see a play that was actually designed from the outset to be shown in this way. The concept of repetition inherent in the loop structure could be made an integral part of the narrative as in myth of Sisyphus, for example. Or perhaps the production could create a place for us to visit that was the story, a prison, for example, or the circles of hell or a labyrinthine bureaucracy... audience members could be given a form at the entrance and then sent from pillar to post for the rest of the show like the scenes in Brazil or the Twelve Tasks of Asterix ^-^
All forms of storytelling have different patterns that fit them best and these tend to be the ones that make use of the properties of that form. In picturebooks, for example, the structure of the book as an object lends itself to a linear narrative with a distinct beginning and end punctuated with points of suspense related to the turning of the pages... I know that Punchdrunk are far from being the only company using installation theatre to tell stories but it will be really interesting following them over the coming years. I hope in time they will give us some stories that couldn't be told any other way.