No seats here. Rather than watching a stage through a proscenium arch, in Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City, the audience wanders around some of the most elaborate sets I’ve ever seen, in a vast maze of rooms and corridors and cubbies. The action takes place all around me, and at every moment multiple storylines unfold. Characters move around the spaces, intersecting with others for a short time or a long time, then drifting apart again.
It is like an elaborately staged ball. Elegantly costumed characters spin to disco lights, or face each other down across a vast banqueting table. They gyrate and jive, tango and jerk. There are moments of stillness and voyeuristic insights into intimate daily life, watching them wash one another’s faces, set out food, and sweep the floors. We have happened upon all this taking place, not for our benefit, but just because these events are unfolding as people live their lives. That means I’ll have to chase after them if I want to get an idea of what is happening or why. I briefly consider that, like ballet, perhaps every movement has a secret language, but I hope in fact it is both more accessible and more mysterious than that.
If you’ve never been to immersive theatre before, Punchdrunk’s shows are both the best and the worst introduction to the genre. They’re the best because the company’s outstanding staging, performances, choreography, sets, music and sheer attention to detail elevate their events to luscious, evocative, breath-taking experiences. They leave me buzzing, processing and reliving them for days, weeks, months after. The Burnt City is no exception.
The reason it can be the most difficult for a newcomer is because Punchdrunk has such confidence in the power of its creations and its audiences that they refuse to spoon-feed them. The results can be bewildering, with no explanation of how an event is supposed to be consumed. Yet this is the whole point: for each individual to discover their own narrative and understanding of what they are watching. The Burnt City is exceptional in this – I find it even more challenging to penetrate than previous shows of theirs I’ve seen.
Partly the complexity is down to the thematic material. We emerge in Mycenae, busy laying siege to Troy, and it is into the myths around this lost-and-rediscovered city that we are dropped. But these stories themselves are already many and varied, and frequently different tellings contradict one another. One source’s villain is another’s hero. Often they are both. With a performance that is almost wordless, it can be hard to identify the many intersecting characters and storylines. Performers rush between the numerous spaces, meeting others, falling in love, betraying, stealing, dying. Plotlines connect and diverge.
It’s helpful to know that the characters loop, repeating their narratives around 2½ times. You get a second bite of the cherry with each. Seeing everything in one night is beyond physically impossible. It could be achievable to piece together all of the main storylines in five or ten viewings. Superfans will go ten, twenty, fifty times, and will tell you they’re still discovering new things each visit. Your mileage may vary.
An added complexity is that in the show Troy is supposedly mashed up with Fritz Lang’s film classic, Metropolis. Despite visual nods, to my gaze this is hidden in the background or, I suspect, layered underneath the fabric of what is seen on the surface. Excavating these elements could be even more tricky. Perhaps the greatest justification for combining the two is the similarity between the afterlife of the film and the city. The original version of Metropolis was lost. It is being pieced back together as new fragments are rediscovered. It remains incomplete. And so with The Burnt City, we each must piece together glimpses, seeing the story from a unique perspective, bringing as much of ourselves to the interpretation of this waking dream as we dare.
So far, so difficult to understand what the Hades is going on. My advice would be to embrace this. If you, like presumably most people, are intending to visit the City only once, leave behind at the archaeological base camp any expectations – and ego – about piecing together the structure. Instead, lose yourself in the performances, the dancing, the sumptuous locations and fantastical set-pieces. As with the myths themselves, the complex plots are secondary to the emotions they evoke.
If you insist on trying to identify people and storylines, there’s a board in the exhibition at the beginning which I’d strongly advise reading carefully before you embark on the ‘audio tour’. It will equip you with the best chance of orienting yourself.
For my part, I think I spot a possible Achilles and Patroclus; Queen Hecuba, mourning; I remember enough from school to be looking out for Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, his sacrifice of their daughter and her revenge. I’m never certain, though, that I have any of them identified correctly – but does it matter?
A reminder also to savour Stephen Dobbie’s score. It is music which functions like the essential clockwork, keeping every element coordinated in time. It also serves to twist the action between tragedy, relief, redemption. More than once I am overwhelmed with awe or kicked in the gut by sound alone.
I suspect that with its intensity of blind immersion, this could be more of a love-it-or-hate-it show than Punchdrunk’s previous fare. I’m not going to tell you you ought to give it a second, or third, or tenth chance to convince you: a show needs to grab and delight an audience on first viewing. But go with an open mind, forget plot, and experience the opulent texture and spectacle of the performance. Who knows – you might want to return again in the hope of figuring out what you’ve just seen. Or perhaps you’ll be hooked, and start planning a move to Greenwich to qualify for the cheap tickets available to locals, and join the ranks of aficionados, commuting to the City several times each month.
Review by Ben Ross
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