Performance with a punch

31 January 2008

Punchdrunk has recently emerged as one of modern theatre’s most exciting and energetic forces. The company is known for transforming disused spaces into performance landscapes which mask-wearing audience members explore. Josh Seymour talks to artistic director Felix Barrett about how the company has developed since its foundation in 1999. Their version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is currently showing at the Battersea Arts Centre.

Can we start by talking about the origins of Punchdrunk? How did the company develop?

I was disillusioned with the theatrical experience being so formulaic and safe that it made you passive. What I wanted to do was remove the safety net and create a sense of danger so people have to deal with it, they have to decide which direction to go in, which door to open, which character to follow. There’s no way to be passive.

When I was in the third year of university and had to direct a monologue, I didn’t want to just stick them in front of the audience, I was thinking about how to engage the audience. So we did it on a stretch of road near Exeter that’s surrounded by forest and the cars go up to 70 miles an hour… it’s not about the way he’s performing the text but about the impact on the audience. So the audience was the people in these cars, feeling as though they’ve seen something utterly bizarre, almost this urban myth of this guy walking near the forest. It was about how you allow the individual audience member to have the most potent experience possible. When I came to direct a full production, I had this brilliant old army barracks in Exeter, and I had the perfect source in Woyzeck. I realised you could play the scenes in any order and it would still work. The mask is the key thing that removes the other audience members, and the idea just came one evening—”of course, that’s it.” You have the space, the text, and the mask solves the problem of the audience.

The physicality of your approach is often commented on. Was it always very physical or did that come later?

It was to a certain extent but the meat of it was text. The Cherry Orchard had an audience of 20 and was compact, it worked on that scale. As we got bigger spaces, we did The Tempest in London, the aesthetic was moving towards what I’d always wanted, it was quite vast, you’d wander these cavernous warehouse spaces for 15 minutes before coming across a performer, it was really atmospheric, and then you’d finally get to a scene, and it was an anti-climax… they’d just start talking to each other. When the space is so vast and stylised, it was weird that the content of the show wasn’t. It wasn’t until I started working with Max (Maxine Doyle, Punchdrunk associate director) that the language shifted. I realised I needed a choreographer. I knew that I didn’t have the capability to craft a physical language.

How does the process of creating a show work?

It differs in every production… there’s so much description in Poe it’s easy. Normally we just break it back to the essence of the story. So for Romeo and Juliet, we’d break Romeo’s journey into 12 scenes and the same for Juliet. The main narrative gives us the spine, but then you take the peripheral characters like Friar Laurence who’s only in the play for two or three scenes, and so he’s got 9 of the 12 scenes missing. What does he do when in the play he exits stage left? If it’s described, we realise that, if it’s not, then we fictionalise it. It means peripheral characters have as much sway as the leads, so it’s true ensemble work. In terms of the space, it’s the physical location that starts it. For Faust, we came close to getting a hospital on Goodge Street, and if we had it would have been an utterly different show. You have the story, the themes, but the first time you walk around the building is when you know what the show will be like. Corridors you’re wary of, doors you’re instinctively drawn to, that’s what the audience will get when they go there for the first time. We just accentuate the feelings we experienced ourselves.

Do you think you are breaking away from previous theatrical traditions?

We live in this digital age where the immediacy of everything is ridiculous. Everything is so fast-paced and chaotic. People respond to Punchdrunk because we make it difficult for them, we put them in real scenarios that are like puzzles you have to crack; it’s like really living again! You’re actually experiencing it, it’s not virtual. What we’re trying to do is create memories, we’re trying to create anecdotes that people will tell at dinner parties!