Sunday, 19 July 2009

Run Baby, Run Baby, Run.....

On Thursday, I took a train to Manchester to see the Punchdrunk theate company's new production, It Felt Like A Kiss.
I had bought tickets for my children, but they were unexpecetedly needed elsewhere, so I resolved to go alone.

Headed by a Viking with a pointy beard, Punchdrunk has put on Faust, Tunnel 228 and the breathtaking Masque of The Red Death. Punchdrunk’s productions are known for their beauty, strangeness and scale. Their plays are staged over dozens of rooms, leaving the audience to wander freely to follow the actors or explore the intricately detailed scenery in atmospheric siderooms.
In Masque of the Red Death, the audience had to wear white, heron-beaked masks, so we became part of a huge Edgar Allen Poe inspired art installation.

If I had done any research into the new play beforehand, I would never have even considered going alone, so it was by great good fortune that at the last minute I was joined by my fetisheuse friend Julie Goldsmith
[see above. check out her creatures on ]
and Hermione Pilkington, the daughter of a friend.
They turned out to be the perfect companions for such an adventure: Julie’s son’s girlfriend was working as part of the play’s production
team and Herm
ione is studying Theatre at Manchester University and had been unable to get tickets before she broke up for the holidays.

The play is staged in a non-descript six-storey office block in Manchester's business district.
Entrances were staggered and we went in twelve at a time, at fifteen-minute intervals.

We rode to the top of the building in two elevators and came out into a darkened passage. An arrow pointed towards a vast Clown’s mouth that we stepped through into a pitch-black passage with thin wet rags hanging from the ceiling. [above, a passage scene for It Fe
lt Like A Kiss]
We reached a screen room that played a sh
ort, soundless film clip on a loop. When it finished and we were wondering where to go next, I glanced to my right. A huge man wearing a clown
mask was standing silently beside us. This was just the beginning of three and a half hours and six floors of ever-increasing terror.

What Punchdrunk had created was a horror movie, one into which we had all just stepped. We were now both the audience and the victims. We stumbled through blackened rooms filled with balloons and th
en made it to a typical suburban 60s sitting room, where a mother & child were watching television with strange images. Next door was a study & then two deserted children’s bedrooms. Everything was dimly
lit, but occasional a light in the next room would glow a little brighter, leading us on. We came out onto an as
tro-turf roof, with sun-loungers and an abandoned picnic, then into a concrete staircase down to the next floor. [right, scene from Like A Kiss] There was a weird figure dressed in yellow oilskins and then a sud
den, terrifying noise.
The group had splintered and by now, it was just the three clinging together. We went through rooms where absolutely everything was painted dark blue, another where all was red and then an office that was completely white. We passed through FBI rooms covered in charge sheets, mugshots of felons; details of murders com
mitted by psychopaths.
In the next office, there was a sheet of paper in an old Reming
ton typewriter detailing the dangers of confusing the psychotic and the psychopathic ‘…the psychotic is rarely able to realise his fantasises, while the psychopath is entirely unable to stop himself from making his fantasies reality’.
There were tiny laundry rooms hung with clean shirts, a beauty salon with a stripey awning, the reception desk of a seedy hotel with green flock wallpaper, a dental surgery, a place like a fish factory with thick
white sheeting hanging everywh
ere & another figure in oilskins lurking.
[left, still from Curtis film, as are all other double images on this page]
We went through a recording studio,
a backstage dressing room and down narrow dark passages of metal lockers that we feared might contain people. Everywhere was 60s ephemera, from the furniture, to pictures on the walls, and down to the clunky pink hair dryer an
d magazines; the detail was overwhelming. [The rooms may well not have happened in this order, as there were dozens and also due to the general agitation.]Often the rooms were not spooky at all, but the i
dea that something bad might happened coloured our passage. Some inspired feelings of comfort, enjoyment & ease, but there was also creepy desertion, surveillance and conspiracy.

Arriving in a large room decorated with swags of white streamers for a Prom party, we found about sixty people sitting watching the film we had seen only fragments of on our way here. For the first time, we got an idea that we were not just a tiny group moving through t
his bizarre world. The film is the latest work of the genius documentarian , Adam Curtis.

Charlie Booker in the Guardian described it like this: ‘Curtis's virtuoso… film is as
tonishing. If you're familiar with his previous work, you'll know he specialises in creating mesmerizing collages, simultaneously impish and forbidding; utterly accessible yet often giddyingly deep…So what's it about? In a roundabout way, it's about you. But it's also about the golden age of pop, when the US rose to supreme power. It encompasses everything from Rock Hudson, Lou Reed, Saddam Hussein, a chimp and Lee Harvey Oswald. It's a heady brew.’And I would add, with a fantastic soundtrack. [See musical recommendation of the week]

If you want to see what I’m talking about go to down past the 1st trailer you get to see a slightly longer one. The website says he is running an hour-long cut of it on the same site on July 19th, the last day of the Manchester festival. If you like what you see, I u
rge you to see the longer version.

The title It Felt Like A Kiss is taken from a song written by Carole King having discovered her babysitter

sequences of our ideological mast[who became Little Eva of Locomotion fame] was being beaten by her boyfriend, but excused him by telling
King it was because he loved her so much. This mangled view of affection works as a metaphor for America's worldview. The film weaves a story about the unintended con
ers, the rise of
AIDS, the joys of living in a rich, liberal nation, the sincere belief of ‘a righteous cause’ it is also about alienation and the power of suppressing and harrying the small people.
It is very brilliant.
When seen in conjunction with Curtis' film, our experiences take on the feeling of the souring of an American dream. A funhouse gone wrong.
After the Prom room, the fear is cranked up. We move in a motley group of about ten people. There are moments of pitch-blackness and terrible noise and then we arrive in a vast labyrinth of wire lockers, each hung with a clipboard holding a handwritten survey.
The maze opens out in a space with a spot lit telephone. A sign above it
flashes on: Pick Up the Phone and at the same time it rings. I answer. Unintelligible words and then nothing. At the next open space the same thing, but with a pill and a glass of water, the sign says Take The Pill. Someone does.
More wire labyrinth and a gun on a table: Fire The Gun. It’s as if we are being invited to do progressively more transgressive things.
A girl does, and the gun goes off with a deafening report, flames shooting out of the end; the smell of cordite.
She was so horrified she fled through one of the many ‘escape’ doors and left the building. We reach a cha
insaw on a table. Another order to start it up, but we can’t.
Finally, we come to a table with a comb on it, in front a lank-haired figure is leaning against a wall. Comb His Hair says the sign. As we dither, behind us the chainsaw starts up and a man is chasing us.
Panicking, we flee from the room through a wood of birch trunks an
d finally reach another suburban 60s room. A sign flashes: Bolt The Door. ‘Someone bolt it!’ a old woman screams.
When we catch our breath, we realise we are in identical domestic suburban rooms to the ones upstairs, but this time figures are slumped; an abandoned family meal, a father looks over a sleeping child in a menacing way. It’s all gone rotten.
[right, a passage from It Felt Like A Kiss] We walk through the slum-like dormitory of a Black Panters' hideout and more surveillance rooms - this time lined with sheets of printed paper blacked out as heavily as our own dear MPs expenses.
We begin to hurry.
We pass a body in an unlit corridor and finally we arrive in a hospital area where people are sitting around filling in the surveys we saw in the wire lockers before the homicidal maniac lit after us. The
questionnaire asks things like, Do you believe you are free thinking? Do you believe in violence to affect positive change? White-clad nurses hand out hospital bracelets. I am in Cell B. We are a group of 8. We are told to stick together and are sent to a room filled with static fizzing TVs, like air traffic control or the security of the building. A figure is slumped across the controls. Cards on our chairs read, ‘in 1984, eight people died in a funhouse fire. Their screams were ignored. People assumed they were enjoying themselves.’
We set off again, past a small glass window with a clown mask in it. The eyes follow us.
Feeling very small and very harried we are lead down, down, down into the basement.
The only comfort I have was this group of companions.
A message flashes CHOOSE YOUR PATH or maybe it says YOU ARE ALONE NOW. There is another another film clip, but I can't oncentrate on it before we are direct towards a pair of heavy steel football turnstiles. Once the first three people have passed through, the door suddenly locks and we are forced through the other one. We can see the others through the metal fencing, but our sheep pens lead us away from them. The last comforts of companionship are being removed.
We reach a pair of glass paned doors through which we can see two long passages, one is lit, the other dark. We're not stupid, choose the light. Julie and Hermione get through, but then it locks.
I am left to go down the dark passage with two guys. left in our group.
‘I’m going to have to hold onto one of you.’ I say. They are butch Mancunians and neither of them like that idea at all and make me walk point until we reach a door. There is no glass in this one to see what is next. I open it. Immediately it slams behind me. I am alone, an individual – the thing so championed by our society.
I am free to do what I want in a long dark passage.
I start to run.
I reach the end.
It is so dark I can’t see where to go, then a tiny distant light beams to my right. I run towards it.
I look behind me. Someone is chasing me. When we were together I screamed quite a bit, but now I am silent in my terror.

We spill out of the building and into the light, shaking and giggling with relief, then head straight to a cafĂ© for a cup of tea. We stand in the doorway gibbering sub-linguistically. A young waiter comes up to see, smiling kindly, ‘You’ve been to It Felt Like A Kiss haven’t you? Take a table, I’ll sort you out.’
I can't believe I almost went to it on my own.
Thank God for other people.
We talk it over on the train back to London where we arrive at 10pm, & go our separate ways.

Driving home, I have forgotten about a large, empty box in the back of my car. Turning a corner, it tips forward and hits the back of my seat. I scream and only just miss a lamppost.
Some stuffy London critics who like Spamalot & Bombay Dreams gave lukewarm responses to such a bravura display of evil genius; but it's genius nevertheless.

[At the date of writing this – It Felt Like A Kiss ends in Manchester on July 20th and will not be re-staged.]