wed 19/06/2024

Punchdrunk's The Burnt City, One Cartridge Place review - thrilling, discombobulating vision of an ancient world | reviews, news & interviews

Punchdrunk's The Burnt City, One Cartridge Place review - thrilling, discombobulating vision of an ancient world

Punchdrunk's The Burnt City, One Cartridge Place review - thrilling, discombobulating vision of an ancient world

You go into a dimension where you operate through instinct as much as intellect

Dancing into a different world: Andrea Carruciu and Dafni KrazoudiJulian Abrams

Punchdrunk’s latest epic undertaking may be inspired by the legend of Troy, but this is nothing less than a dark journey into a mythological underworld. The company has brought its thrilling discombobulating vision to a venue that sprawls across 100,000 sq ft of two former ammunition factories in Woolwich; the result, appropriately, is theatrical dynamite.

It has been eight years since the company has staged a major show in London, and for those who have followed it since its inception in 2000 there are familiar elements. Each audience member is given both complicity and anonymity through their own prop, a plague mask. As you make your way across the vast complex from one darkened space to another, you know that while the production is inspired by a conventional text, or texts – here Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba – the story you witness is utterly down to the choices you make.

Before focusing on what you might discover, it’s worth spending a moment considering the degree to which artistic director Felix Barrett and his inspirational team make sure that you feel permanently disorientated. The lighting design – by F9, Ben Donoghue and Barrett himself – takes you into a dark and flickering netherworld. When you first enter one space it’s not immediately clear how you will exit; while sometimes you’re aware of being part of a crowd at others it’s hard to see anyone three feet away from you. To add to the distortion, Stephen Dobbie’s echoing soundscape alternates subsonic rumbles with bursts of lush filmic orchestration.

One building represents Troy, the other Mycenae – where King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter so his fleet can sail to Troy only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus when he returns. You enter as if through an exhibition of objects discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, the nineteenth-century amateur German archaeologist who was obsessed by discovering the true location of Troy. The clearly labelled exhibition cases stand in marked contrast to organised chaos of the rest of the evening. But as you gaze at replicas of objects like Helen’s headdress – originally modelled by Schliemann’s wife Sophia – you are made to encounter the characters through the prism of his obsession with a universe that was more vivid and fantastical than his own.Some have commented that the production is just too random and doesn’t have the intellectual heft of the texts from which it takes its inspiration. But that’s to miss the point. Punchdrunk’s great skill is to take you into an entirely different dimension in which you operate through instinct as much as intellect. A dimension which the ancient Greeks, with their prophecies, rituals and beliefs in a pantheon of jealous decadent gods, would have found more than familiar.

At points it feels as if you’ve been let loose in a cult, such as the moment when you witness Iphigenia being sacrificed before her half naked body is raised up towards the ceiling. At others it feels as if you’re a voyeur as characters engage in Maxine Doyle’s raunchily choreographed dances. Sometimes you’re a spy, creeping into stranger’s bedrooms and closets. When you reach the bar, the sensation is of hitting Weimar Berlin, as singers and comics in fetish gear deliver a delightfully demented cabaret, while encouraging you to delve as deep into your subconscious as you dare to go.

The design – by Barrett, Livi Vaughn and Beatrice Minns – provides plenty of detail filled with visual jokes and allusions. There’s the moment when you stumble into what’s presumably Athene’s boudoir, where a bed constructed like a beautiful cage is filled with stuffed owls. There’s the closet where a golden Minotaur figure plays on the theme of girls who are ritually sacrificed. There’s the shop called Alighieri that references the underworld vibe. Or the room full of the dismembered limbs of statues, a reminder of how we often encounter the ancient Greeks without thinking of their full-blooded richly physical past.

Here, however, in the 21st century Burnt City, there’s no danger of forgetting the physicality of a world filled with death, sex and revenge. As my companion said it’s like Percy Jackson crossed with David Lynch; a constantly unsettling and enthralling experience that constantly challenges you to push the limits of your curiosity. There are immersive theatre companies – such as dreamthinkspeak – that can produce more vivid and clearly relevant responses to the text that inspires them; where Punchdrunk excels is in demanding as much of the audience members as of the performers. You emerge blinking at the end of the production, both unsure of what reality is any more and not really caring.


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