In 2000, Felix Barrett founded Punchdrunk as a theatrical company with one overriding thought, namely that audiences should have greater freedom to select what they experienced in a theatre. In doing this, he took immersive theatre to a new level. Something I experienced when I had my mind completely blown by the production of The Drowned Man in 2013. This was theatre as I had never seen it before so you can imagine my excitement when I was asked to go along and review Punchdrunk’s newly opened production The Burnt City. So, after a much easier journey than I expected from my home to Woolwich Arsenal, I joined the eager queue at the appointed time and went in.
As with all immersive theatre, there is very little I can tell you about what happened when I went through the doors and donned my audience mask. This is a show that you can see a dozen times and have a different experience each time. But everyone starts in the same way, walking through an exhibition of artefacts recovered by Heinrich Schliemann in his 1870 search for the lost city of Troy which he believed could be found in Hisarlik in Turkey. Once we had taken this in, curtains opened, and we were introduced to The Burnt City itself.
The performing space is vast and is set across three Grade II-listed buildings, which comprise the where fifty-four performers portray twenty-eight characters. And you, dear reader, are free to explore every inch of it. How you do this is entirely up to you. As I have ‘done’ a Punchdrunk before. I split my time – around 3 hours – in three ways.
First, I followed a character. This is a tactic employed by a lot of seasoned Punchdrunkers, who will stay with one character throughout, following their personal story in the show. This means that you often see a character appear with a tale of mask wearing people following. And if two popular characters converge, a fairly empty space can suddenly become quite crowded.
I have to admit, I lost my character and that was when I moved into phase 2 of my visit and stayed in one place as the show came to me. Again, I’m not going to say too much, but the location I chose was, luckily for me, excellent and I saw an awful lot of the story. I also really got to hear Stephen Dobbie’s amazing sound and view some of the really effective lighting design F9, Ben Donoghue and Felix Barrett, that not only illuminated but became a part of the action. I especially loved the lightning bolts doing a walkway duel. Also, being in one place meant I saw quite a few of the characters and could view close up the exquisite costumes by David Israel Reynoso, including a mask/headpiece that would not have looked out of place in the crown jewels.
Phase 3 was just to walk around alone and admire the unbelievable set designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns where, as is the hallmark of a Punchdrunk production, the attention to detail shone through. No matter where I went, which room I went into, or where I walked, the set was perfect and totally sucked me into the story.
Felix Barrett has written the show and taken Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’s Hecuba as the source texts, but don’t worry if Greek mythology isn’t your forte, it doesn’t matter. I would recommend reading as much as possible in the ‘museum’ part of the show as that gives a high-level idea of what will be happening. But if you don’t it’s not a problem, directors Barrett and Maxine Doyle – who also choreograph – have put together something spectacular to entertain you.
I’m going to finish this review with a few, hopefully, helpful hints. Make sure you’ve had something to eat or drink before you go in. There is a bar that you can visit at any time, but it took me ages to find it. Though when I did, it was great fun. Wear comfortable shoes. There is a lot of walking – if you want there to be – and the makeup of the floor isn’t always consistent – I’ll say no more. Don’t necessarily follow the crowd. If you’re short – like me – it’s easy to miss things by being at the back of a group but walk around and you will find an angle that works for you. Finally, unless you’ve been to a Punchdrunk production before, go in with your mind open to something you’ve never seen, felt, heard, or experienced before. You won’t be disappointed.
As I left and went back into the real world, I realised that Punchdrunk had done it again. Two days later, I still have some of the scenes running through my mind and I’m on the website looking to see when I can get another ticket for what will, I’m sure, be the biggest theatrical event of 2022.
Review by Terry Eastham
Set across two Grade-II Listed buildings, The Burnt City tells the story of the greatest Greek tragedy, the fall of Troy, transposed to a future parallel world. On their own theatrical adventure, audiences are free to explore this dystopian landscape –taking them from the majesty of royal palaces to the pulsating underworld of Troy. Audiences may choose to follow the characters who emerge from the shadows, saturate themselves in the show’s shifting atmosphere, or break free of the crowd and discover mysteries lying in wait at the heart of the labyrinth.
One Cartridge Place, Woolwich, London, SE18 6ZR