Punchdrunk: The Burnt City – Cartridge Place, Woolwich, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: Felix Barrett

Choreographer: Maxine Doyle

Directors: Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle

In 1870, Heinrich Schliemann satisfied his lifelong obsession with Homer and The Iliad, journeyed to Hisarlik in Turkey, and began to look there for the city of Troy, the city Homer described as under siege by a Greek army for ten years. Schliemann found multiple traces of cities on the site, bulldozed and dynamited out of the way any he didn’t like, and found a layer of burnt earth indicating a city that had been destroyed by fire, the Burnt City. After an eight-year absence from London, Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, directors of Punchdrunk Theatre, have established a base in two warehouses in Woolwich courtesy of Greenwich Council, and built a city of their own, an immersive experience they call The Burnt City.

Felix Barrett founded Punchdrunk in 2000. He believed that audiences should have greater freedom to select what they experienced in a theatre, and so he built immersive environments for audiences to wander through freely, exploring and experiencing at their own whim. He put them in white masks to make them ghost-like mute witnesses, and based performance largely on dance and wordless acting.

There are three different aspects of a Punchdrunk show. First, there are insanely well-realised sets, dressed with staggering attention to detail, full of clues and hints. Any Punchdrunk fan will be blown away by the extent of the details in this space – living and work spaces of all sorts, with objects and documents to examine and consider. This is attention to detail is the hallmark of all Punchdrunk productions, and it is superbly presented.

Second, performers loom out of the semi-darkness and perform a few feet from the faces of their audience, who give them space to move but are otherwise on the same level, in the same place. There is a Punchdrunk audience technique of latching on to a performer and following them through the space, to observe their character’s interactions. This means that most performers move through the space with a comet tail of twenty or so masked followers, who circle each interaction and make it quite hard to see what’s happening. The most significant interactions are given some height, though, so it’s always possible to see something.

Maxine Doyle choreographs slow, combative pieces, with a lot of contact and climbing on other dancer’s bodies, a cross between erotic and aggressive. The movements are repetitive and powerful, rarely elegant, and emerge from the haze and half-light provided by lighting designers F9 and Ben Donoghue. Half-light is a feature of the event. Misty glasses under Covid mask and Punchdrunk mask, dim, atmospheric, gloomy – the presence of hazard tape on stairways and illuminated exit-signs are very helpful, though they do reduce the sense of immersion. The other audience members are similarly hard to ignore, as they step around and in front of each other.

The third, and least successful aspect of the Punchdrunk experience, is the engagement with sources. In his previous work The Drowned Man, Felix Barrett welded together elements of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck with elements of Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust, and the conversation between the two texts seemed to focus more on the chance to dress characters in 1940’s Hollywood costumes than any mutual illumination. For this show, Barrett has taken Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba, both dealing with the aftermath of war, both referring to a sacrificed daughter, and both featuring mothers wreaking vengeance on a man they deem responsible for their daughter’s death. But that is the extent of the engagement with those texts – sacrificed daughter, vengeful mother, murdered king. While it isn’t untrue, it’s a glib reading of hugely significant plays. It is very unclear who the actors represent (detective work ferreting about in the surrounding rooms might make that clearer), and therefore hard to engage emotionally. And Troy seems to have a colourful and exotic night-life despite ten years under siege.

Felix Barrett claims that his immersive productions give the audience a fuller, more intimate insight into the plays he uses. This isn’t apparent in this production. What is great is the exploration, the closeness to performers, the sense of inclusion; all those things make the Punchdrunk experience vivid and unique.

Runs until 4 December 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Immersive, imaginative, immense

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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