Where to start with this?
Sky Atlantic’s folk horror-crime mash-up series, The Third Day, got the live-episode treatment on Sky Arts today. Which in itself is an ambitious goal (just think about the kerfuffle that’s created whenever EastEnders or Casualty tries it).
But what happened here was truly remarkable, extraordinary and utterly absorbing.
For this epic, 12-hour experience (did I mention that this was a live episode played out for 12 HOURS?), the innovative, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk was employed to stage it.
Say the words ‘immersive theatre’ and it sends shivers down the spines of many a human, feeling so preposterous and pretentious it goes beyond all comprehension.
But having experienced a Punchdrunk show – the 1950s-themed, Twin Peaks-like The Drowning Man – I couldn’t wait to see what the company had in store for The Third Day – Autumn. As it turned out, it was one of the most breathtaking things I’ve seen and experienced on a television screen, that rooftop scene in Giri/Haji included.
When I attended The Drowning Man sometime back in the 2010s, I remember being greeted by a whole host of actors rushing up and down several floors of a converted warehouse in west London. You could choose who you wanted to follow in order to try and keep up with some sort of narrative, or you could just hang out in constructed 1950s-style bars and shops and other places, and chat to the characters. It was genuinely amazing and a world I didn’t want to leave.
It was like a computer game crossed with theatre crossed with a theme park, where the production design detail was truly breathtaking.
But onto the The Third Day – Autumn.
Punchdrunk told us that this live experience was going to be ‘slow cinema’. If anyone has seen some of BBC Four’s ‘slow TV’ in the past then you perhaps had an idea what this was going to entail.
And really, the theatre company wasn’t lying.
Right from the opening scene – a tortoise-like crawl over the causeway into Osea island, with drizzle specking the camera lens, slate-grey skies hovering above and a droning, dark ambient soundtrack giving the whole piece a foreboding, dreamlike feel – you knew this was going to be intriguing.
The crawl along the causeway lasted for 35 minutes.
Only another 11 and a half hours to go.
Jude Law, who plays Sam in the series, appeared onscreen after about an hour. We knew from the conventional episodes that Sam looked as though he was permanently trapped on the island after seemingly being forced to accept his birthright as the leader of the Pagan-like religion that governed these strange folk.
Now, with full beard and wearing a thick, woollen jumper, his journey in this transition episode (we’re going to go into a trio of ‘Winter’ episodes from next week) really was something to behold.
We watched as Sam was led out to sea to take part in some sort of ceremonial ‘last supper’ style meal, betrayed by a Judas-like figure and then proceeded to watch him dig what looked like a grave.
For an hour.
Yes, you read that correctly: we watched Jude Law dig up heavy, clay-like mud for an hour. His jumper was sodden and hanging off him like a sheet, and he was quite clearly exhausted.
But Jude/Sam’s ordeal wasn’t over yet. Oh no.
After grabbing some sleep for half an hour (we watched him do that, too, in real-time, studying the contours of his face in a strangely intimate interlude), he was abruptly woken up and forced to drag a wooden fishing boat over the land and down to the beach. As the Tweet above says, ‘Esus’ carrying the weight of the islanders’ sins.
The Christ-like imagery and narrative – and the punishment – continued as a crown of wooden spikes was a forcibly attached around his neck. He was then taken out to sea, where he – and another man – stood on wooden platforms until they disappeared into the ocean.
Almost like a crucifiction, but sea-style.
Now, it’s worth reminding you that Jude Law was doing all of this in real time. On a cold, rainy day in October. It was extraordinary to watch, not least for Law’s gameness, sheer stamina and endurance.
Lengthy sequences involved other islanders – most of which who had tried to kill him in previous episodes. Some sat by the sea and longed after lost loved ones, there were preparations for a festival and there was some terrifying imagery (how about scarecrows hanging from trees lining the lane that entered the village at 4.50pm on a Saturday afternoon?).
At this point – around seven hours in – I did wonder whether this was going to be a full resurrection story. And sure enough…
All this religious restaging and iconography was all well and good, but did this 12-hour episode work as an experience and as good drama? As strange as it sounds, it’s a big yes to both questions. Thanks to the constant ambient soundtrack and barely perceivable voice track watching it felt like being trapped in a waking, lucid dream, where faces and voices came and went. Throughout it built tension nicely, took breaks, ramped things up again and so on. How Punchdrunk managed to sustain this over such a long period of time I have no idea.
I hadn’t watched the first three episodes of The Third Day so came into this cold. Our Andy’s been keeping us abreast of the comings and goings of this strange place, but instead relied on the atmosphere, the bold and striking imagery and the sheer visceral, Lynch-like, quiet maelstrom to sustain me.
I still had some questions though. Why did Sam – who has evidently been battling his whole time on the island to escape – acquiesce so easily to being tortured and eventually a sacrificial lamb? If he was the anointed saviour by birthright, surely the islanders would want him alive.
But still, we were told this live episode was connected to the narrative arc itself but was something completely stand-alone and different at the same time.
Staging a 12-hour episode of television – with all the choreography and timing needed to make it work – is an astonishing achievement, and the acting (especially from Law) was so powerful, determined and… well, consistent, that The Third Day – Autumn will go down as one of the more remarkable, technically innovative and affecting televisual experiences ever produced.
Would you want to sit through another 12 hours of it? No, probably not. But contextually, watching a community do mundane things was soothing and reaffirming, especially when you consider we aren’t allowed to do mundane things with each other at the moment. Stuffing scarecrows full of hay in preparation for the festival? Why not. Eating and sharing food together on a big table? God, I’ve missed that. Raving in a field to drum and bass music? I’ll jolly well take it with knobs on. Throw in a ceremonial, ritual sacrifice and everyone’s happy.
(You could also discuss some fascinating allegorical juxtapositions: for hours The Third Day – Autumn built tension and suspense with Sam’s plight, and showed us his torture and subsequent death; then there was an extended festival/rave scene, which showed revelry on an almost bacchanalian scale. Was this a straightforward retelling of The Passion with a modern twist? Was it a test to see if he was worthy of being the Father? Something else?)
On a rainy, cold, COVID-battered October Saturday, it was just about perfect and the fact that it kept you enthralled and gripped even going into the final, 12th HOUR was some achievement.
I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a horror year so far, but if it’s to be remembered let it be for this.
Now autumn has gone, winter is officially coming. But how can it follow that?
READ MORE: ALL OUR NEWS AND REVIEWS OF THE THIRD DAY