The clue is in the title. It felt like a kiss. As I wait with the rest of a small party in the foyer of a large, central Manchester office block, there is the very real sense that the next hour and a half will be far less benign than the show’s ambiguous title suggests.
Anti-dramatists Punchdrunk, documentary-maker Adam Curtis and Blur frontman, Damon Albarn combine for Manchester International Festival’s highest impact event.
Impact is probably an appropriate description; this is the kind of show liable to leave anyone physically and emotionally worn out as it batters the senses in a fairly indiscriminate fashion.
The equivocal title is a reference to the Crystals’ song, He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss). The lyric stems from Little Eva’s relationship with her then boyfriend. The singer was regularly beaten by him; apparently, in the name of love. The show metaphorically builds on this premise. The overarching idea is that the United States has, since the golden era of pop in the 1950s and 1960s, used its power to remake the world in its image by beating the world into submission though for the majority of the show, it feels like I’m the one being beaten to a pulp.
The groups splits into two lifts that ascend to the top of the building. We meet in almost complete darkness. If the idea is to unsettle me early, then it is working. As I waited in the lift with my new friends, I assumed I’d be fine managing on my own. How a few primal fears can squash a man’s impudence. I haplessly cling to the group as we emerge from the darkness. With a sinister mood firmly set, the group finds itself in the home of the post-war American Dream. Every minor detail is perfectly recreated.
It’s at this stage I have a near out-of-body episode. Am I a character walking through a video game? It can certainly feel that convincing. Gamers will think of titles such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil as they make their way through a world that clashes fiction with the surreal. Clearly, Punchdrunk haven’t held back with this one.
As you wander through the building, the idea becomes clear. Establish what the American ideal is and then unpack it, expose it, decry it, ridicule it all in a way that leaves the most indelible impression. As the group tentatively makes it way from American home to 1960s television studio, things becomes less suggestive and more illustrative. References to blots on the American copy book, such as Bay of Pigs, the JFK assassination, Vietnam, and the misadventures of its intelligence services, are commonplace.
Randomly placed televisions show disarming films of distressed women and napalm victims. Albarn’s score, which follows the group around like an extra member of the party, is an effective blend of slightly incongruous American pop music and threatening muzak. It is at this stage that Punchdrunk’s influence is drowned by Curtis’ swipe at the States.
I sit in a darkened cinema and wonder what will come next. The group settles down to a short film documenting America’s slide from grace. It’s a curious juncture. A few minutes ago I felt I was being prepared for something more than a history class albeit in a strange, unwelcoming room. The film is an interesting assessment of American Cold War politics, highlighting the ways in which the United States has been at the heart of its own and the world’s undoing, but the momentum of the experience suffers as a result.
Perhaps it is due to the immense humidity and heat within the building (it had been a hot day), but I am a slightly weary bystander by the time the production reaches its horror climax. A labyrinth of nightmarish rooms and interactive stunts work more on a superficial shock level than they do on any kind of intelligent level. Several members of my party drop out as the show comes to an unsettling conclusion. Cheap(ish) thrills these may be, but they are certainly capable of hitting their mark.
Ultimately, the serious side of Curtis’ documentary-making plays off against Punchdrunk’s more playful sense of adventure. As a combination of talents it nearly works, but it is probably best to enjoy the show’s individual components. No, there’s nothing particularly pleasant about this kiss.