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Punchdrunk’s Viola’s Room | Review

When I heard that Punchdrunk, the masters of site-specific theatre, had bought two large warehouses in Woolwich Arsenal, I was excited. Sure, like everyone I was excited about their return to their London base with The Burnt City, which didn’t disappoint. But, more than that, even before that show opened, I was excited to see what they did next. Because it’s a complicated creative endeavour to work out how you fit a show you’ve imagined into a particular venue, but the fun really begins in earnest when you have to reimagine the space, and find a way to bring something completely new to it. 

Punchdrunk - Viola's Room. Photo credit: Julian Abrams
Punchdrunk – Viola’s Room. Photo credit: Julian Abrams

Little did I suspect that that something new would be Viola’s Room

Gone are the free-roaming sets that you explore for yourself, leaving your companions behind. Gone are the masks which marked out the audience members’ anonymity. Gone, even, are the actors: there are none in this show. 

On paper, this is about as far as you can get from a Punchdrunk production, short of putting the audience in seats and making them watch a stage through a proscenium arch. And yet, almost a miracle brought to life, this show feels absolutely, quintessentially Punchdrunk, and I leave feeling it makes perfect sense that this is what they did next.

So with all those elements stripped away, what are we left with? We are invited to take off our shoes and socks (special grippy socks are available if going barefoot is a problem), given headphones, and told to follow the light. Guided by illumination and Helena Bonham-Carter’s disembodied voice, we are led into Viola’s bedroom. I’m not going to tell you anything about Viola or her story: this is, after all, what unfolds as we journey into and through it. 

It unfolds in something approximating to a maze meeting a diorama meeting a Santa’s grotto. We move as one group, stopping frequently, but never for too long.

Suffice it to say, there are frequent moments when I chortle with delight, or gasp, or speed up, or slow down. The creative team have found elegantly diverse ways to bring the tale to life, and place us inside it. We are puppets they are controlling, and I feel in good hands. At every stage, they seem to be one step ahead of me. “No, seriously, what is that smell?” I ask myself, moments before it is revealed. 

This is a visceral, real-world, tactile experience, which explores what storytelling can be done when you eschew all usual constraints. It’s linear, in a way that most Punchdrunk shows are not, and all the more accessible to first-timers for it. I’m sure it won’t be for quite everyone, but if you enjoy the thrill of a new adventure in a novel format, this is for you.

Punchdrunk have unstitched the bindings of a fairy tale tome and dropped us into a world woven from its pages. I leave with a sense of vivid, fantastical awe.

5 Star Rating

Review by Ben Ross

Written by Daisy Johnson
Narrated by Helena Bonham Carter
Conceived, Directed and Designed by Felix Barrett
Co-Directed by Hector Harkness
Designed by Casey Jay Andrews
Lighting Design by Simon Wilkinson
Sound Design by Gareth Fry

Written by Booker Prize-shortlisted Daisy Johnson, Viola’s Room reimagines a classic gothic mystery for a new audience. It distils two decades of Punchdrunk’s immersive practice into an intimate sensory adventure that promises to infuse the dreams of anyone who dares to follow the light.

Punchdrunk, One Cartridge Place, London SE18 6ZR



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