I mean, honestly, I’d have been happy with a regular, run-of-the-mill show. A Bulldog, a hoedown, a private party, and a few favourite scenes. A quiet goodbye. That’s all I wanted.
But it’s Punchdrunk. I should have known that these guys wouldn’t do regular or run-of-the-mill. And for a finale, rather than just knock it right out of the park like they do every show, they’re going to smack that sonovabitch into orbit.
* Queuing in the sunshine, the fans turning what should be a chore into a solid-gold highlight. Strangers sharing food, drink, and their love of the show. Homemade goodies, cupcakes decorated with orange slices and peas, whiskey-and-orange flapjacks, treats from the absolute gent who brought everyone strawberries and raspberries all week long. Thoughtful gifts for the performers, too. A thank-you note for front-of-house passed around, comments overflowing onto the back. Roses for the finale, notes tied to the stems. Fans dressed as their favourite characters: a Miguel, a Fool, a Dust Witch. I expected a wake but you guys made it a festival.
* Sam Booth arriving early for the show, doing a double-take when he saw the queue already wrapping the building. Walking the length of it, eyebrows raised, lips pursed in that rueful smile, phone in hand, capturing everyone on film. Shutter open… record… record… record…
* The cheers as the queue starts to move. We hurry in, check our bags, scamper through to see the cast board. There have been rumours — wild, crazy, ridiculous rumours — about what Punchdrunk might have planned and the cast board should tell us whether the rumours are true…
* And the cast board is blank…
* And just like that all those carefully crafted plans go out the window. We’ve no idea what’s waiting for us in there. It feels like those magical first few weeks when we were discovering the show for the first time, no expectations, no mental list of must-see moments, just pure anticipation and excitement. And it feels like the perfect way to end this.
* Entering the maze, smelling the unmistakeable fragrance of the show for the final time, a scent so unique and evocative that I feel myself close to welling up as I breathe in a deep lungful. I keep my composure long enough to slip my mask on and become anonymous, but then lose it almost immediately afterwards as — like an old friend — that familiar voice comes over the speakers…
* “Good evening. This is Leland Madison Stanford. Welcome to Temple Studios. Thank you for coming here to celebrate the completion of our latest production, The Drowned Man.”
* With difficulty, I pull myself back together in time for the lift where the wonderful Kat McGarr awaits, smiling warmly, careful not to catch the eyes of those of us for whom this is already too much. She tells us that she could reiterate Mr Stanford’s instructions, but, really, there’s no need, is there? We giggle, melancholia evaporating, butterflies and excitement taking its place as the lift drops into the bowels of the studio.
* Straight out of the lift and running up to Studio Two, searching for the Fool. Paul Zivkovich might be here tonight, and if he is then I have to follow him. Sadly, when I make it to the birthday tent and spot the Fool, I don’t get a good look at him and in my over-excited state I mistake Paul for someone else and hurry onward… oops…
* My disappointment is short-lived because in Studio Five I stumble across Conor’s Frankie, a character I discovered so late in the show but now a firm favourite. He really deserves a post all to himself, so I won’t say anything more. But, jeepers creepers, that guy really should get an award. Wow.
* Perhaps just one scene from his loop, because it’s not really his scene: my final Bulldog in Studio Five. Fania’s gorgeous Andrea Alden the epitome of an infatuated teenager, flirty, feisty, her little red bob cut bouncing as she bops about, lips pursed in a little smirk as she gazes coquettishly at the audience tapping their toes in time and lip-syncing the lyrics with her. I don’t know whether Temple Pictures have another hit with high-school-musical-comedy-tragedy Leader of the Pack, but Bulldog is definitely worth the price of admission alone.
* As his loop ends, I leave Frankie with the Seamstress and hurry through town in search of Rob McNeil’s Andy, hoping to see his jaw-dropping bar dance one last time. I find him behind the trailer park, spying on Miranda’s Faye dancing dreamily by Dwayne’s trailer. He slips into a shirt, twirling it through the air and gracefully sliding his arms into it in one smooth movement, then saunters over to get her attention.
* We form a loose circle watching their steamy courtship dance. I’ve read endless posts about bad audience behaviour but tonight it’s beyond reproach. I expected a cut-throat show, elbowing and shoving, fans fighting tooth-and-nail for final moments with favourite stars. I should have known better because tonight everyone is so considerate: hanging back, giving the performance room to breathe, carefully not blocking eyelines, as much respect for each other as for the show itself.
* Faye vanishing into the trailer, face and arms emerging from the darkness to grab Andy, pull him in then push him away, back and forth, back and forth. Andy pressing her against the door, leaning close; emotions clearly run higher than usual tonight because she pulls him to her instead of pushing him off and they share a long lingering kiss before breaking apart, leaning against the trailer, trying to compose themselves, as breathless as the audience.
* Then, without a word or a glance, Andy turns and walks away towards the woods, leaving Faye and the bar behind. I weave through the crowd and follow, wrong-footed — this isn’t what’s supposed to happen…
* I lose sight of him as he strides past Romola’s trailer, then see him suddenly come flying out towards the church, thrown violently to the floor, sliding to a halt on his back, staring up at someone hidden from my sight. I round the corner slowly, everyone motionless, the scene frozen like a movie still, a single static frame.
* A dark figure stood over him. Back towards me, a silhouette against the church. Cowboy boots. Black-and-white checked shirt. Leather waistcoat.
Holy shit. A jolt of recognition, goosebumps running up and down my arms, hairs standing up on the back of my neck…
* He turns slightly, looming over Andy’s prone body, light revealing his face. Those high, sharp cheekbones, that cold stare, the arrogant, mocking sneer. Another jolt of recognition, another wave of goosebumps chasing the first…
Badlands is back.
Badlands is back, and it’s River fucking Carmalt.
* I do a small involuntary dance of joy, offer a silent prayer of thanks to the Punchdrunk gods.
* Seriously, I must have done something good in a previous life because they couldn’t have planned a better show for me. Jack was always my favourite. Always. I spent so many nights drifting through town with him, and after he left the place just felt so empty and incomplete. I’ve missed the grumpy grizzled bastard so goddamn much, and being able to see him one last time as the sun sets on Temple Studios just feels so goddamn *right*.
* And, even better, tonight I have the double pleasure of something old and something new. I never saw anyone other than Sean play Badlands, and River’s interpretation is a deliciously contrasting mix of the fresh and the familiar.
Sean’s Jack was a man haunted by his past, brutalised by the things he’d done and waiting for fate to catch up with him. But, rotten and cursed as he had become, there was a sense that somewhere inside that wreckage were the remains of a once-good man.
River’s Jack is different. There’s no good buried deep inside him. He’s rotten right to the core. A low-down dirty snake of a man, weaned on cruelty and pain and with an appetite for sharing it. Experience has taught him that everyone fucks you over sooner or later, so now he’s got no problem at all with fucking you over first.
* Watching the fight in the trees. With Sean this is a messy drunken brawl, but with River it’s absolute murder. He fights in silence, rattlesnake-fast reactions, throwing Andy to the floor, pinning him down, toying with his prey, until Andy — sweet, honest, good-hearted Andy — finally loses his temper and the change is shocking. Andy is so kind that I’ve mistaken his gentleness for softness, but when his temper is up he’s kind of awe-inspiring. He hurls Jack off without breaking a sweat, leaves him lying in the dirt, shouting angrily over his shoulder as he strides away, not liking that Jack dragged him down to this level.
Jack lies there for a moment, satisfied smirk on his lips, not seeming to mind the way this turned out at all. He enjoys a good tussle, and I get the feeling that he’ll take great pleasure repaying this hurt…
* As Jack struggles to his feet, Andy heads into the Horse and Stars. Decision time: bar dance or Badlands? Rob’s bar dance is incredible, it’s going to be raw and emotional tonight, and I’ll dearly regret missing it… but who am I kidding? Jack was always my favourite, and even Rob McNeil’s final dance can’t tear me away. But, god, is it a close thing, and that there’s any competition at all is an enormous compliment to both.
* Jack disappears into the church, a huge crowd following him, blocking my view. Waiting patiently outside, I hear huge cheers from the Horse and Stars as Rob’s bar dance gets the reception it deserves. Oh, well… I wish I could see it, but I know it’ll be one of the highlights of the night that everyone talks about, and I’m already looking forward to hearing how amazing it was.
* His business in the church finished, Jack emerges and joins the crowd in the Horse and Stars. He takes a seat in the room opposite, the Grocer filling his spot in the hoedown these days, and watches as the cast line up and start to tap their heels to the beat. Usually the audience watch in silence, but tonight they’re joining in, stomping, hollering, and clapping in perfect time, the beat infectious and impossible to resist.
* As Jack sips his whiskey and eyes the dance in the other room, I see a figure walk up and lean on the bar next to him. Despite the white mask hiding his face, there’s no mistaking the familiar dusty suit jacket or the way he moves: Ed Warner, a ghost of a Miguel, a spirit now relegated to aimlessly roaming the studio. He leans against Jack and they clink their whiskey bottles together, a small toast to soon-to-be-absent friends, then he drifts on through the studio, saying his own goodbyes to his home. It’s a quiet moment, almost buried by the raucous party in the other room, but heartbreaking and sweet for those of us who catch it.
* As Ed drifts onwards, the wall-shaking thunder of stamping feet halts dead on the beat and the silence is so complete you could hear a pin drop in the bar. I can’t help grinning at the perfect timing; it seems like the audience know this scene almost as well as the performers…
* Jack wanders out through trailer park, then pauses and turns to stare at the flock of following masks. I think he’s about to grab the girl next to me for the one-on-one, so I slowly step back a pace, putting some space around her so he can pick her off. He strides towards me instead, faster than I expect, and I stumble backwards, taking another step, then another, unable to stop, a tiny part of my brain aware that I’m about to slam into the wall… He darts forward, pounces, grabbing my arms, predatory sneer on his face.
"Gotcha!" He drags me towards his trailer, throws me inside, and bolts the door.
SPOILER for Badlands Jack (River Carmalt) one-on-one.
"Siddown," he snarls, looming over me. As intimidating as he is around town, being trapped in a locked room with him feels infinitely more dangerous. I sit, and he eyeballs me for a moment, pours two shots, and sits by to me. We clink our glasses, slowly raise them to our lips, somehow both watching to see the other drink first. I can’t take the stare-down any longer — I lose my nerve and and down the shot, grimacing at the taste. He smirks in amusement and downs his own shot with a flourish.
He sits meditatively for a moment, staring into space, then reaches some decision.
Pushing open a hidden door, he steps into the darkness and pulls me through after him. I don’t have time to take in my surroundings; my eyes are drawn to his hands, slowly winding a long band of black cloth between his fists, pulling it taut like a garrotte as he stares at me.
I suddenly flash back to the end of his loop, see him choking on the floor, clawing at the noose around his neck, and start to panic a little at what he might do. I flinch as he lunges for me, but the band goes around my eyes rather than my throat, cuts off my vision rather than my air.
Blind, heartbeat thumping in my ears, I feel him lean close and grab my shoulders
"I keep going back to when the sands blew in…"
He starts walking me backwards, and it literally feels as if he’s taking me back with him into his story. Unable to see, my mind starts filling in the blanks. I feel sand under my feet, dry, bare branches brushing my arms and back, we’re going back to a scorched forest, to some other place, a dream within the dream.
His voice is a hoarse whisper in my ear, weaving a dark spell as he tells his story, a tale of a fire raging in the sky, of hell rising up, spitting in the face of the creator. I feel something at my back stopping me, but he keeps pushing forward until I’m pressed hard against it, my head twisted to one side, his mouth up against my ear, snarling.
"This whole town is going to hell…"
"It’s hot down there…"
"But I’m COLD."
Two freezing hands grip my throat, squeezing, the shock and pressure stopping my breath. A thousand childhood nightmares rush through my mind and I let out a choking gasp, feeling like I’m being strangled by a corpse, cold rotting fingers digging into my flesh.
"Are you going to hell?" The hands bear me down, pulling me into the cold dirt, down to hell with him. I try to resist and pull away from the clutching hands, but I’m not strong enough fight back and I feel myself sinking lower and lower. He starts to laugh, a guttural chuckle that catches, takes on a life of its own, and rises into uncontrollable despairing hysteria.
"Or is it just a dream…?"
The hands vanish; unrestrained, I stagger back to my feet, almost losing my balance. The blindfold is torn roughly off and he’s stood in front of me in the darkness again, shadows playing over his face, smirking in amusement. In one smooth movement he slips my mask back over my head, pushes open a door behind me, and throws me through it.
"Get outta here! Go on! Git!"
I hear his crazy laughter behind me as I fly out, a spray of sand coming with me as I slide across the town floor, desperately trying to keep my footing. I turn back but he’s already gone, secret passage closed tight behind me, his laugh fading away.
END SPOILER for Badlands Jack (River Carmalt) one-on-one.
* I take a deep breath to release the tension, the reassuring safety of the town helping dispel the nightmare. I walk slowly back to the trailer to wait for Jack to emerge, a spot I find myself in fairly often this evening. He doesn’t seem to have much of a loop tonight; he’s mostly doing serial one-to-ones, maybe because the Grocer and Barman have acquired most of his content. He appears briefly again, but only to drag someone else into his trailer, so while he’s amusing himself scaring the crap out of another victim, I take five minutes to run around and see what else is going on tonight…
* After a quick foray into the studio, I make it back to the drugstore and say another prayer of thanks to the Punchdrunk gods because Anna Finkel’s Drugstore Girl is back in town. I love her interpretation of the character: a little older, a little more world-weary, too long spent waiting tables, seeing her dreams slipping away one day at a time. But although her dreams have faded slightly, her sweetness hasn’t. She’s so kind to her friends and customers, always putting them first, soothing their troubles and never burdening them with her own.
* And to my surprise, I see Jack sat at the counter, sipping a glass of lemonade through a candy-striped straw. She smiles at him warily, knowing he has mischief in mind. He sucks up a mouthful of the lemonade, raises his straw from the glass, and spits a long stream of liquid through it into her face. He lowers the straw and grins, challenging her to retaliate.
* She wipes her eyes, sighs wearily and shrugs, disappointed at herself for expecting more of him. She raises her own glass, pauses for a second to make sure she has his full attention, and then deliberately throws it all over him. It’s so out of character that I’m shocked, but worse is the feeling of sorrow for her — he’s somehow gotten under her skin, and she’ll hate that she stooped to his level..
* He snickers in delight, slides off his stool and walks to the postcard stand. He fingers one of the cards pointedly and we all flinch, expecting him to throw the carousel across the room, to sending the cards flying for her to pick up. And he knows we’re expecting it… he pauses, enjoying the tension… then gently puts the card back, taps it with a fingertip, and smiles innocently.
* We let our collective breath out, but no-one relaxes; we know he’s going to do something, we just don’t know what.
* He turns to leave, then quickly snatches up Andy’s jacket, balling it up, spinning around, throwing it hard and fast like a baseball pitcher straight at her head. She ducks, covers her face, and it clatters into the counter with a crash, sending glasses and cups flying. Laughing, he swaggers out, as she runs her shaking fingers through her hair and starts picking up the mess.
* I follow him out, grimacing under my mask. He’s such an asshole. I tail him to the saddlery where he kills some time polishing his boots, then heads out to the trailer park again. As he snatches another victim for a one-on-one and disappears into his trailer, I head back to town to see how Drugstore Girl is doing.
* I’m happy to see that she’s shrugged it off and is back to her usual sweet self. I perch on a stool, watch her carefully pouring a glass of lemonade, a slow smile spreading over her face as she slides it over to a mask sat at the counter, someone with far better table manners than Jack. I love this interaction so much, and it’s a treat to see it again. Every scene tonight sparks echoes of earlier shows, triggers memories of moments I’ve loved, almost as if Temple Studios life is flashing before my eyes. It’s beautiful.
* Watching her pull on her skates to dance with the Barman. There are dances that are more technical, dances that are more breathtaking, but I think for heartwarming sweetness this one takes the cake. The way she holds his hands for support, hops up onto her stoppers and does a few cute little flamenco stomps, grinning up at his face in delight, so innocent and joyful, like a little girl dancing with her father at a wedding.
* I follow her to the hoedown, and the Horse and Stars is packed to the rafters. Jack sitting in the bar in the other room, drinking alone again. As the hoedown degenerates into a brawl, I see Drugstore Girl hurrying away from the violence, and she walks over to Jack and gives him a small soft kiss on the lips…
Oh, my… An apology? A tease? I’m only seeing fragments of their loop tonight, but I wonder, are they a couple? He’s clearly bad news, but then Drugstore Girl doesn’t always make the best choices and I can see her falling for a guy like this — she wants love so bad that maybe it seems better than nothing. As she pulls away, Jack smiles slightly, a mixture of pleasure and pain; her kiss touched him somewhere he’s still vulnerable, and he’s not entirely comfortable with it. Maybe he’s not rotten to the core after all? Oh, I so wish I could have seen more of these two back in the day…
* After the hoedown, Jack vanishes into his trailer for another one-on-one, perhaps the last of the night. I wait in town for him to emerge, and as the secret passage opens I see him throw out someone I half-recognise: the girl I was stood beside earlier when he grabbed me. She sees me leaning on the building, does a little happy dance of recognition, and we give each other a thumbs-up and grin. I’m so glad she stayed, and that he rewarded her loyalty; it looks like he made her night.
* It’s growing dark, the lights going down on the town one last time. Seeing groups streaming towards the stairs, I try to find Jack but he’s long gone and I’m directed to follow the crowd to the finale. I pause at the door, turn and say a little goodbye to San Bernardino, empty, dark, dusty, desolate, a few lights glowing dimly in the mist. I know I’m not coming back, but it feels like it’ll always be out there somewhere, a dirt track off some highway, waiting for some unfortunate lost traveller to wander into it.
* Reaching the finale late, the forest already packed, a huge crowd ringing the base of the hill, Wendy dragging Marshall to his end, the one scene I always see, repeated endlessly night after night after night, but which I never tire of. As Marshall vanishes from Wendy’s arms, the music crescendos and falls, and the sudden rush of silence is filled only by Wendy’s shocked sobs as she stands there holding the space he once filled. The moment stretches on and on as we wait for Mr Stanford’s final words to bring it all to an end…
* “And cut. That was perfect. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a wrap.”
* And with that suddenly all the emotion that has been growing since the start of the day — hell, since the start of the end — can’t be contained any longer and has to find an outlet. The applause, cries of joy, of sorrow, of raw emotion, are deafening, but I barely hear them over my own.
* But they’re cut short as We Are Enough starts thumping out of the speakers and the wrap party gets underway. We clap and sway to the beat, wending our way back to watch the hoedown.
* And it’s incredible. Everyone is up there, I can’t even count the number of performers — it’s shoulder to shoulder all the way along the stage. The energy levels off the chart, everyone going hell for leather, shouting with every stomp, sweat flying, the audience clapping and yelling in time with each beat, the room shaking as the dance accelerates towards a climax…
* Then the sudden beat of silence as the lights fall, the bodies hit the floor, and William and Wendy are left facing each other alone.
* The murderers, lifted and tossed by the waves, deposited by the pools where their dead lovers float. And I realise that tonight they’ve been joined by their doubles: another William and Mary, another Wendy and Marshall, hand in hand, stood by their side like a reflection. They look at the murderers for a moment, something passing between them, a mixture of sorrow and accusation, then step back into shadow like ghosts. William and Wendy’s eyes are drawn to the bodies in the pools, and they wade into the water, lift and cradle their lovers in their arms, the grief and horror at what they’ve lost finally hitting home.
* Then darkness. Then silence.
* And then the room erupts for a second time as we scream ourselves hoarse once more, the audience throwing their own roses onto the stage, a gorgeous crimson shower to show their appreciation as we applaud and cheer over and over and over…
* “Still rolling.”
* Mr Stanford’s voice over the speakers. We quieten instantly as he walks onto the stage to face us. He glances at the figures in the pools, then looks out across the crowd and pauses for a second, checking that he has our undivided attention. The room is silent, expectant, waiting for a final message, an epitaph for his masterpiece.
* “Still rolling.”
* And just as I realise that there’s a gun in his hand, I see him raising it in one smooth motion to his eye, preparing to close the shutter of the one camera that just cannot stop recording. Disbelieving shouts drown out his voice, people rising to their feet obscure my view, but I still hear the shot as he blows it all to kingdom come, and the finality is earth-shattering.
* And then it really is over, and the room explodes one last time with cheers and applause that run and run and run and run. The cast fill the stage to take one last bow, Felix dragged up and hoisted onto their shoulders as the audience rise to their feet and show just how much this incredible experience has meant to them, and just how much it will be missed.
Thank you, Punchdrunk. For creating a world that beguiled, bewitched, and almost bankrupted me for a year. You expanded my appreciation of what I thought art and theatre could be. The boundaries that I thought kept it neatly contained, controlled, and safely at arms length were meaningless to you. Your world blew right through them and engulfed me, dragging me in, drowning me, and it was terrifying, exhilarating, and life-changing all at once. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Thank you to the crew. For patiently looking after us, night after night, welcoming us in with warm grins, sending us on with a smile and a see-you-soon. Visiting the studio felt like coming home, and you guys felt like family.
Thank you to the cast. For giving everything — and I mean everything — every single night. For giving more than you should, sometimes more than your bodies could take. It was so humbling seeing you in the bar nursing injuries, realising how much you gave, how high the cost to you could be, and realising that you do it anyway and would do it again every damn night because you love what you do — what you give life to — so damn much.
And thank you to the community. As dark, deeply-layered, and delicious as the show was, it has been made so much more by everyone who shared their love of it. Reading your recaps, having my eyes opened to influences and overlooked details, marvelling over your art, sharing your experiences, laughing at our mishaps and mistakes. Honestly, I’ll miss you as much as the show itself.
And that’s a wrap.
Goodnight, Temple Studios.
Your star burned briefly.
But, god, it burned bright.
It eclipsed everything else, and though it’s gone I can still feel after-images of it burned into my mind. And while we know we can never go home anymore, I think that’s okay, because I think somehow we’ll carry it with us, that it’ll stay part of us and won’t ever be forgotten, little memories springing unbidden when chance upon little things that reminds us of the dream.
The smell of oranges, a fragment of a song, the sight of a sunflower, or a fool, or that shot of the galloping horse, that gorgeous endless loop that will run and run and run.