REVIEW: The Burnt City – Punchdrunk

June 18, 2022

The Burnt City


Cartridge Place, Woolwich

Punchdrunk are the gold standard of immersive theatre and after a few offerings – from other companies – of overblown, overpromised half-baked ideas offered up as immersive theatre it’s utterly reassuring to just give yourself over to these masters of theatrical immersion.

They present an atmospherically powerful future-noir take on the stories and protagonists from classical texts on the Trojan War in their huge new home at Woolwich Arsenal. No detail is too small in Felix Barrett’s sets everything suggests meaning, furniture, flowers, icons, clothes, whole house sourced, places, given meaning and you can touch, smell, explore, move and enjoy every single space, object and scene in Burnt City. Some of my most beautiful experiences where when the show had moved on and I was left in a room alone, to be surprised by another of the actors, hauntingly in character spending a moment alone.

My companion and I had very different experiences, he chose to follow the protagonists, exploring their narratives and spaces as they moved through the atmospheric and perfectly curated sets. A highpoint was to explore Hephaestus’s office alone, interacting with the wood panelled grand office, dressed with 1930 furniture, pictures, object de art. The set giving him more of a narrative and made more sense than the actors themselves.  However you may choose to navigate the Burnt City, following the characters, randomly roaming or systemically exploring each of the spaces on offer and happening on action and plot by chance you’re going to have a stunning elusive fragmented experience. The action is danced, rather than performed and Maxine Doyle’s sensual crepuscular chorography allows the dancers to explore modern themes of ancient storytelling.  You either like or loath this type of movement and dance, I’m no great fan but as one element in a much larger sumptuous tapestry it’s enjoyable. My companion was enthralled by it. As a promenade performance you can really get close to the performance as it unfolds around you.

Everyone is masked, not just mouth masks but upper face masks, robbing  us of our expressions, giving us all the same blank white ghostly look, like ghoulish voyeurs we float around the action, being drawn by blood, laughter, sex, love or death, the highpoints of flesh the magnets that we circle, unable to influence or change, just to watch, peep out of our masks, not even sure who we, or the people around us are. It’s a brilliantly disconcerting way of disempowering an audience  but frees us up to respond in a less performative way ourselves.  We are ghosts in this narrative machine, and the action unfolds around us in small private performances or huge perfectly choregraphed set pieces, stunning in their reach and discipline.  The evocative lighting across the buildings adds more disconcerting experience and the ever-present underscore of music and sound scape propels us onwards. Stephen Dobbie’s music fills the vast spaces, soaring and roaring,  robbing us  of the ability to be still or relax, its climax a full on rave.

I had some astonishing moments, allowing the sets, special effects, wind machines, music, dance, every moving crowd and endless choice to coalesce into stolen gloriously odd moments; laying back on a garden bench watching pin strobe lines wheel above me hypnotically, in a Greek market square, holding on to the gripping hand of a half-naked prophetess as the rest of the audience looked on, breathing in and out in unison, wonderous. I watched a murderous fashion show/marriage take place on a monumental concrete catwalk alter which ended in a bathroom murder straight out of Dallas. Stalked in the underworld with a nonbinary bodied underworld deity, crunching antler, bone and sand underfoot in the candlelight as a dead princess was whirled around with an aerialist to a haunting throbbing dirge. Explored a secret drag queens dressing table, in a hastily abandoned house replete with wigs, sequined dresses and the stale scent of regret, opening purse and sewing box to find an endlessly intricate tiny story unfolding in my hands. Pushed through a wardrobe full of dry cleaning to emerge, alone, in a huge caged bedroom filled with stuffed owls. Just utter bonkers delight.

From behind my mask I watched, fascinated by the ability to see but not be seen, and (although this enables a slightly pushy mentality with some audience members) it adds a shadowy edge to us – the watchers – as we wander and watch these fifty four performers becoming twenty nine characters using Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’s Hecuba as  source texts, but there is little dialogue, it’s movement that expresses the narrative and this makes it feel difficult to understand, with the story unfolding in so many ways across the huge complex spaces.

The story takes in the fall of Troy, but is a metaphorical choregraphed representation of war, displacement,  death, power, propaganda, the experience of populations under siege or held captive by a repressive state and Punchdrunk present two very different spaces in Brunt City, joined by a linked narrative, relationships, conflict, love and ultimately war.  Opening as a supposed museum tour, we wander in small groups through the  pre-show introduction about Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th Century excavation of Troy, giving us a peep into the blood, rage, and gore yet to come and then emergence blinking into a maze of neon lit tiny streets and recently abandoned rooms, claustrophobic confusing and designed to split groups, couples and any sense of coherence up.  Go with it. Embrace the singular.

The bar is a  Queer joy, hidden in plain sight, with the show a delicious Weimar cabaret of decadent debauchery, singers, drag hosts and dancers slithering all over each other and us, lasciviously.  I wanted to spend longer in the bar, I loved it there ( especially as it took me an hour to find it! But stick around after the show as the bar stays open) it was such fun, but as always with a good immersive experience the order of the night is FOMO. Do I stay here and watch this unfold or move on, what am I missing, what else is going on a room, tent, space or breath away from me.  I give it up and let myself float though this stunningly curated space, opening doors, checking wardrobes ( always, always check a Punchdrunk wardrobe out…) , laughing with sheer delight at the fun that’s been built into these sets, and there are more than 100 spaces to explore, each detailed to the dust.

Burnt City runs until Dec 2022  & you can buy tickets, and sell a kidney if you can’t. Seriously, it’s THE immersive experience of the year and well worth the trip up to a rather delightfully reinvented Woolwich and Punchdrunks’ new permanent spaces, if you love spectacle and WOW factor then you’ll adore this clever promenade performance, but if you’re looking for meaning, or epic storytelling then you’ll leave unsatisfied.  I was thrilled by Burnt City but really didn’t understand what was happening around me, but after two hours of endlessly wandering around, exploring and occasionally coming across some epic orchestrated piece of action, I was more than happy with my experience and understood that this eccentric, rich and very strange tribute to Greek mythology has worked its special magic.

Tickets range from £55 to £88 for a solid three-hour show, learn more  or book here

Punchdrunk also understand that during these difficult time that not everyone may have the means to buy full price tickets so  have teamed up with TimeOut to release daily ‘Rush’ tickets at £25 , you can learn more about how to sign up for this offer here