The Best Seats for This Play Are Moving Fast

New York Times | LONDON December 17, 2006

WHAT if you went to the theater and there were no seats? What if you could meander with no guide or direction — from one room to another, and one plot to another? And after sampling a few scenes, you could then repair to the bar, order a drink and listen to a twanging honky-tonk band?

That’s what it’s like to watch “Faust” in an old warehouse down by the docks in the formerly derelict London neighborhood Wapping, when it’s put on by a theater company called Punchdrunk. There’s a Faust and a Mephistopheles, but very little narrative of the usual sort. Call it a performance piece, call it an installation, call it promenade theater as the British do, but whatever the label, it’s likely to leave a profound impression. It’s theater for the interactive age. But instead of moving a cursor, you simply move yourself, choosing whatever character you want to follow, whatever sound intrigues you, whichever enticing corridor you are drawn to explore. 

Punchdrunk’s artistic director, Felix Barrett, has filled a 1,500-foot disused warehouse surrounded by wire fencing with a series of rooms and cordoned-off areas: a large undivided space, punctuated by real trees is called the Forest; a nifty re-creation of a Hopperesque American coffee shop is the Diner. Sometimes you enter a space and there’s action already going on — a fight, a dance, two characters menacingly circling each another. At other points in the evening, you find yourself in an area devoid of performers or other audience members. The lighting is low, eerie. The effect is spooky, an adult version of a child’s haunted house. 

Although London is in the middle of a vogue for site-specific work, with performances taking place in nontheatrical locations from a former abattoir to vaults under London Bridge, Punchdrunk stands out. Mr. Barrett began his theatrical career at Exeter University, a campus known for its drama department, where he staged an early performance by a roadside as traffic went by. It was Punchdrunk’s production of “The Firebird Ball” — Stravinsky crossed with “Romeo and Juliet” — that brought the company its first major dose of critical attention. 

The London critics have been even more enthusiastic about “Faust,” with Susannah Clapp of The Observer proclaiming it to be “one of the most astonishing events, not just in the theater, but in the whole of London.” 

Mr. Barrett, 29, said, “The space always has to be charged,” so that even when spectators walk into a part of the warehouse where no action is taking place, they can fill in the blanks with their imaginations. Mr. Barrett works closely with Maxine Doyle, Punchdrunk’s associate director and choreographer, and Stephen Dobbie, the company’s sound and graphic designer, to get every detail — from an old manual typewriter to a motel-room bed — just right. 

“There’s a sense of fear, of apprehension,” Mr. Barrett continued. “And when the audience is on edge, adrenaline pumping, they’ll take in any sort of sensory stimuli more easily.”

Without the usual division of space between audience and performer, spectators are often unsure of how to behave. In a dance sequence, the fourth wall collapses entirely: some of the performers take a partner from among the audience. While some audience members seem quite at ease with this — even eager for it — the discomfort of others is palpable. All spectators are asked to put on identical plastic masks as they move out of the bar, which functions as a passageway between the outside world and the Faustian world, pulling them into the performance. 

Because no viewer sees the same “Faust,” the performance is like a textbook on the subjectivity of experience. “Some people treat it as a conundrum, a puzzle to be solved,” said Colin Marsh, Punchdrunk’s producer. “They try to follow a single character for the duration of the performance, but that doesn’t really work. Even if you manage to stick with them as they run about, even then you don’t get a complete story.”

Not only do different spectators witness different events at different times; some lucky (or unlucky) few are pulled into back rooms and antechambers for what the company calls “one on ones,” in which a door may be locked, a story told, a mask removed. 

“People generally come with one or two other people, and there’s what you saw and what they saw,” Mr. Marsh said. “It’s interesting the way people want so much to fit the pieces together, to control the narrative. Afterward, they’ll ask: ‘Did I see everything? What did I miss?’ And of course, part of the point is that there is no one answer.”

When Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theater, saw “The Firebird Ball,” he liked it so much that he decided to assist in the production of “Faust.” This has meant all kinds of things to Punchdrunk: more rehearsal time, fewer financial pressures, but perhaps most important a new audience, one more used to mainstream theatrical experiences. Not everyone has taken to the Punchdrunk approach, but many do. 

“We’re used to thinking of theater in a reductive, consumerist way: paying money for a controlled sequence of events,” said Tom Morris, the associate director of the National Theater. “We don’t want to be shortchanged. Punchdrunk is changing the terms of the deal.”