As you arrive at the crumbling office block, in the heart of Manchester’s Quayside, the warnings couldn’t be more clear. A grim-faced guide, unsmiling, tells you primly: you’ll need shoes that protect the whole of your feet. Don’t go in if you’re nervous, pregnant, or have a heart condition. There will be strobe lighting and graphic images; and whatever you, don’t stray from the path. If you really feel that you need to get out, follow the red curtain. Somehow, eventually, you will make it back into the world — but you wonder: even if I do get out, will I ever be the same again?
Because this is a deeply unsettling experience. Even for Punchdrunk veterans, accustomed to candlelight, secrecy and carnival masks, this is a disorienting two hours [WARNING: There will be spoilers. If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, look away right now]. You’re sent up in an elevator, to a sixth floor swathed in darkness, in groups of eight or nine. As your adjust to the gloom you see a gaping, grinning mouth. A nervous giggle goes round the group. This is the way in —
— except it’s not. Or not immediately. There’s a maze of darkened corridors, lit only by the very dimmest glow, erasing any clear sense of direction before, suddenly, you’re in America, the early Fifties, in the first bright afterglow of World War Two. These are complete rooms of the period, peopled with dummies and bright with optimism: there are holiday photographs, rocket-ship wallpaper, the best-sellers of the period. When you look more closely, however — and in these shows every detail tells a story, and not a scrap is out of bounds — a darker, more troubling narrative emerges. In the midst of all this prosperity are CIA memos, oil exploration maps, reports on LSD experiments and blacked-out, censored letters (or, in the sinister new parlance of the expenses scandal, “redacted”). And you start to piece together an over-arching story: what was the price of this bright innocence, of pop music, fashion and the movies? What was the madness behind Mad Men?
This is probably the point at which, even if you hadn’t known it at the door, you’d realise that this is a collaboration between Punchdrunk and documentary-maker Adam Curtis, the man behind The Power of Nightmares and The Trap. For some years now, Curtis has been exploring the nature of the contemporary world. Where does our obsession with personal choice and consumerism come from, and at what cost? And how (and why) has the West, led by America, so consistently promoted, armed and funded leaders whom we then turn into monsters, from Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein?
As the threads begin to come together, the nature of the rooms begins to darken. There’s a completely whitened office, as if bleached by a nuclear blast, and a room from a tropical posting: the Republic of the Congo, perhaps, where in 1960 the CIA kidnapped and assassinated the first elected leader, Patrice Lumumba. Which brings you to the centre of the evening: a half-hour film by Curtis, screened in what appears to be a disused High School gym (complete with locker room) that knits together Lumumba’s death, Lee Harvey Oswald, Diana Ross, Rock Hudson, AIDS, Saudi Arabia and a dozen other subjects in an exhilarating montage, a smashed-together synthesis of more than a decade’s work. It’s exciting, alarming and contagious, much like the syndromes that Curtis describes, and as it ends you leave the gym head spinning, filled with information (I bet that everyone who sees it remembers that Terence Young, the first director of the Bond films, made a propaganda movie for Saddam Hussein) and a little apprehensive about what will happen next.
And with good reason.
Curtis is obsessed with the notion of choice. The Western world is driven by the idea of free will: who we are, what we buy, what we think and who we sleep with. But at the same time, in his view, we have surrendered a different set of freedoms: we vote less, we’ve given more power to the state, we consume less news and more gossip, and we believe that we have less control than ever, at the same time as celebrating choice. And so, as the show begins to darken, and the rooms you walk through become progressively more bleak and less humane, you find yourself penned into a small group of strangers, driven by white-coated officials into a maze of metal cages, your vision now restricted to just feet in front of you — and then the screaming starts. Because what happens next is frightening. Really frightening. Do you know that you’re not in real danger? Yes. Does that stop you running for your life? Er — no. And as the group is slowly separated, as you’re winnowed down to three — then two — then alone in the darkness, with no light ahead and no sense of direction, there’s a very real sense of dread. Yes, it’s not real. Yes, it is in essence a fiendish, adult haunted house. But as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, “Tell yourself it’s only a movie”. And then he’d scare the pants off you.
Some critics of It Felt Like A Kiss have derided this part of the show: “look, mum, I wasn’t scared”. They’re lying. It’s a brilliant, visceral experience, and I won’t be using a chainsaw in a hurry. But that’s not the real question. The real issue, in any such collaboration, is whether it’s a real partnership: does the theatrical production really dramatise the argument? This is where the show falls down. Punchdrunk’s director Felix Barrett wondered, in a recent interview, if he had gone too far this time. In fact, despite the horror, he hasn’t quite gone far enough. The idea at the heart of Curtis’s work — an idea sometimes lost in the sheer thrill of his technique — is, in essence, bread and circuses: the Roman notion that if you can distract the public with frivolity, they won’t care what’s really going on. Give us enough pop music, enough televisual treats, and we won’t care about the wars, the lies, the exploitation. The final sequence of the show is inspired by the work of B.F.Skinner, a behaviourist psychologist whose work was centred on conditioning: why do we make the choices we make, and how can we be persuaded otherwise? Skinner was horrified by how easily people could be conditioned not to care for those around them. The ending of It Felt Like A Kiss introduces a very real sense of external threat, but that is all it is: external. The right ending would have been to force the group to take decisions that affected one another; that made us question why, and how, we’re so able, so often, to look the other way.
In the end, for all its funhouse dazzle, the show lacks the courage of Curtis’s convictions. By providing the monster in the closet, it lets us ignore the real monster: us. It’s both its prosecutor and its villain. Hitchcock also said that, “people don’t want a slice of life of life; they want a slice of cake”. Superbly crafted, intellectually ambitious and technically accomplished though it is, this cake ducks its real challenge: to slip a razorblade inside.