With Punchdrunk it’s hard to know where to begin. Mainly because visiting one of their productions requires being launched directly into the middle.
Entering a sprawling, mesmerising labyrinth, the award-winning theatre company’s newest venture The Burnt City is immersive theatre on a scale I’d never experienced before. Inspired by Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba there’s no point trying to follow a story too strictly, instead giving in to the experience of being fully engulfed in whatever takes place around you. Stepping into a visceral and captivating dream world means it’s better to embrace embodied sensation and feeling and, by the end of the night, you may just be able to piece the plot together.
The work defies easy categorisation, using a mix of contemporary dance, physical theatre and incredible production design to bring classics tales to life. Set across two warehouses, audiences can explore as they wish as the events surrounding the fall of Troy take place around them. Troy is transformed into a series of back alley dive bars, curious shops and quirky hotel rooms, neon lights abound as intricate snapshots of the life teeming below the surface of the city come to the fore. Strangers discuss the nature of life over a drink, a perfumer swings from the ceiling of his shop, seduction and violence intermingle, all while the Gods watch people dance through the shadows.
Conversely, neighbouring Mycenae is a darker world plunged into the gloomy depths of wartime. We entered a cavernous space just in time to witness the infamous scene of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to the Goddess Artemis, watching from a giant mezzanine as soldiers prepare for war, characters move between the battlefield and the palace, and Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, eventually gets her revenge.
A key part of visiting The Burnt City is understanding and accepting that you can’t see everything. There are six entry times; we had one of the earliest in order to explore as much as possible. Throughout the performance stories loop. So many things happen simultaneously that this gives viewers a chance to see a wide variety of scenes, including ways characters leave a space only to arrive somewhere else and overlap with another story. There are, however, multiple endings, and it’s physically not possible to watch everything in one visit. In fact, you could go every day of the show’s run and never experience the same thing twice.
This does, however, give one the chance to also observe the fascinating differences in each audience member’s choices. Some choose to explore the physical world of the set (unsurprising when one takes in the stunning attention to detail from Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns throughout such a vast production), leaving no stone unturned like the show is some sort of puzzle to be solved. Others may follow one character, frantically running after them through winding corridors and round dark corners. Many, including myself, choose to drift between the two, trying to see as much as possible while ultimately ‘giving in to the vibes’ of the night rather than getting too militant on how exactly to experience it.
Photography by Julian Abrams
It’s all a sensory delight, with an incredibly talented cast backed by an all-encompassing score from Stephen Dobbie that swings between soaring beauty and pulsating beats. Maxine Doyle’s choreography is detailed, precise and virtuosic, deftly performed by a gorgeous and multi-talented cast. As a dancer myself, it’s a rare treat to see a production giving so many people work at a time when the arts in the UK are chronically underfunded. As a viewer, it’s even better to see everything done with such beauty.
Beyond the show itself is the bar, which one can dip in and out of at will. Filled with cabaret, keytars and a host of debaucherous delights, it’s both a fun respite while remaining completely in keeping with the world at large. Like everything else within The Burnt City, everything is carefully considered down to the finest detail.
The sum of all these parts is theatre like you’ve never seen it before. I like to cover the arts when I can because I think this work is a vital tool for unlocking empathy and radical imagination; viewing the world not as it is, but as what it could be. The Burnt City does this well, the looser approach to narrative invites us to instead explore feeling, memory, and ways to reimagine the stories we’ve been told. It also shows the power of creativity when given the proper tools of access. Imagine what work would be made in a world where artists have financial freedom to explore, when more productions could employ casts of this size, when larger creative teams could be brought on board? The rapturous audience response, and the fact that Punchdrunk has extended this run into 2023, suggests that this is a future many would embrace. I hope to see more work from this company, and much more work like it one day.