Punchdrunk‘s new production, The Burnt City, directed by Felix Barrett
The Burnt City really is a masterpiece and it’s a mistake not to see it.
and Maxine Doyle, taking place in one of the buildings at the Woolwich Arsenal.
It’s an immersive promenade show set during the last days of the siege of Troy.
Audience members are given an arrival timeslot, but you can spend as long as you like once you’re inside. As soon as coats and toilet visits have been dealt with, your phone is locked away and given to you in a secure pouch. You are also given a theatre mask to wear in addition to your Covid mask.
Then you enter the relative darkness of what appears to be a museum exhibition that’s based on the findings of two 19th-century archaeologists who hypothesised that Troy might well have been a real place. The site of which is located at a place in Turkey, now called Hisarlik.
This exhibition is beautifully curated and wonderfully atmospheric. You could almost imagine that you’re actually in the British Museum itself as you follow the crowd and take your time to examine the artifacts in cabinets and read the accompanying labels. But as you make your way through the galleries, you begin to realise that you are no longer in a museum; you are in fact inside the very walls of the besieged city itself. You are now in Troy.
And this city has a very different feel to it. This is a version of Troy that is stuck somewhere in the first half of the 20th Century. The costumes by David Israel Reynoso, the architecture, the props, the set-dressing – seem to create a misremembered Ancient Greek version of the Weimar Republic – with all of its fatalism and decadence.
Overall, the design By Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns is stunning. There are vast cavernous halls, elegant bedrooms, cramped kiosks, cells, showers and grand staircases. Each one is a surprise and each one bears the traces of the vibrant life that once was here.
There are people present of course, but this city feels largely abandoned. Most of its inhabitants have clearly escaped… or died. As you move through the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, you begin to come across the few people that remain in the city. The audience is at liberty to go anywhere at any time and therefore there is no linear narrative. What we witness are glimpses of character and glimpses of relationship. Key figures from the legends of Troy, like ghosts that hang around the city, doomed to perpetually relive salient moments in their lives.
There is very little script. And you only hear snatches of conversations – like something you might overhear when you walk past a couple arguing in the street. And it’s not necessary to hear everything. Much of the communication utilises body language and the politics of space – the physical dynamics between characters or between characters and the surrounding architecture and furniture.
The overall effect of these ‘sightings’ feels like watching a Kurasawa film in which there are no close-ups – only wide angle shots. And this lends everything in The Burnt City an epic and often ritualistic feel – the sense that, when we don’t have long left, everything takes on an intense significance. The feeling that this moment might be our last. And the resonance with current events in the cities of Ukraine does not go unnoticed.
The sound design by Stephen Dobbie is exceptional – a subtle but unsettling soundbed that rises from time to time into the swelling strains of an epic movie score. As you move through the space, the score enables you to create a direct connection with this other world. And if you allow it to happen, you yourself become the main character in this story – you become ‘of’ this netherworld. And as in some kind of lucid dream – there are some things you witness passively and other things you feel you have full agency over. It’s you who chooses where to go, who to see and when to see it. This is your Troy and the ubiquitous score becomes the soundtrack of your emotional life here.
The lighting by F9, Ben Donoghu and Felix Barrett is adds to the sense that you are, in fact, dreaming. The spaces through which you move are often filled with darkness, and yet the light pools in places to pick out specific elements in the space – a recently abandoned hammock, an unfinished letter, a dressing table where someone might have brushed their hair a few moments ago.
As with previous Punchdrunk shows I’ve experienced, there is much to do and see, and watching how the audience navigates all of this is fascinating.
Some people march around each room making sure they’ve been everywhere and seen everything, examining every nook and cranny, the contents of every cupboard and every plate – as if they are scoping out a giant nightclub for a planned heist.
Other people anxiously chase after characters in order to catch everything that happens in the hope of piecing together some linear narrative. You can spot these people because they surge through the space in a group, like sightseers following a tour guide on a TV soap opera set. Trying to get to the ‘front’ - perhaps so they can remember and understand everything and they don’t leave the theatre feeling like they didn’t quite ‘get it’.
Personally, I like to abdicate all obligation to find logic or meaning and get totally lost and confused. The face mask, the darkness and the disorientation adding to my sense of being stuck in another world and another time where nobody knows me. The places I pass through, the characters I meet and the scenes I witness are impressionistic. They wash over me like in a dream. For me, this is when real ‘immersion’ happens and it’s quite profound.
These days, in order to alleviate the trauma and intensity of the theatrical experience, some companies provide ‘a breakout room’. Punchdrunk have clearly thought of this, and they’ve playfully incorporated the idea into the very heart of the production: in one of the larger spaces at the centre of the city, there is the most wonderful cabaret bar.
You find it purely by accident, or by listening to an indistinct hum of voices down a corridor, or even by following one of the flickering David Lynch style neon signs that sometimes guides the way.
And when you arrive at the cabaret bar, you feel welcome and relief. You buy a drink, a cocktail perhaps and even some snacks and sit at the tables to enjoy the show. There is a compère, and a band, comics, singers and dancing. But the clever thing about this is that the spell is not been lifted from you, and the intensity is not dispersed. Rather, this feels like a dream within a dream.
And it was here on the cabaret stage that I witnessed one of the most moving moments of the evening - Orpheus singing a rendition of Alison Moyet’s All Cried Out.
Another thing worth noting, and I’ve felt this with previous Punchdrunk productions (although it has to be said that this might be symptomatic of my own personal approach to the material), is that because I don't have a sustained relationship with any one particular protagonist or story line, I don’t build up a sense of empathy and I don’t care what happens like I feel I am meant to in an ordinary theatre production. But for me, this sense of disconnect – of not caring – adds to the wealth of my dream-like experience. This is not ordinary theatre.
There is no knowing when to leave The Burnt City. I think I was there for about three hours in total. I probably didn’t see everything or do everything, but that simply doesn’t matter. My experience was entirely bespoke and unrepeatable. I think I just drifted out onto the streets of Woolwich once I felt saturated – punchdrunk perhaps – almost imagining that my journey back home was still part of the experience.
The Burnt City really is a masterpiece and it’s a mistake not to see it.