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Review: The Burnt City (Punchdrunk)

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

The Burnt City was our first experience of Punchdrunk. Shocking, I know. We’ve always known who they are, know people who have seen their shows, we’ve heard about the scale of their work, about the detail, about the overwhelming nature of it all. But being able to do one together…well…we felt very lucky to be there. We wrote this one together...

Theo: I mean good God. The spectacle of it all. I’ve never seen anything like it. Set in two enormous buildings in Woolwich Arsenal, one representing Troy and the other Greece, I’m convinced you could spend a week watching this show over and over and still come out with areas unexplored and untouched. Greece is sparse and full of sand, moody lighting and slow motion. Troy is pulsating, seedy, full of back alleys, ravers and room after room of hidden gems. Both are overwhelmingly spectacular.

The set (by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns), lighting (by F9, Ben Donoghue and Barrett), and sound design (by Stephen Dobbie) melt together in a crucible of technical, theatrical excellence. Each element distinctly its own, yet perfectly complimenting the environment it finds itself in. The attention to detail is outstanding and some of my favourite moments in this cavernous, labyrinthian world are spent rummaging through personal belongings I find in a room I could never find again.

Nathan: Whilst Theo ventured into seemingly unalluring doorways and passages, equipped with the inquisitive nature of a toddler I investigated as many cupboards, drawers, doll’s houses, vending machines, books and plush cuddly-toy owls as I could get my hands on. Each prop, setting and scenery is exceptionally detailed.

Theo: And behind each doorway was always an unexpected treat, with each room hinting at some type of Greek myth; I found Theseus’ red string in a teacup next to a puzzle shaped into the corridors of the labyrinth - although the spectacles take your breath away, it’s the little things that make this show special.

The story, as far as there is one, uses Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripdes’s Hecuba as its source texts with an array of wonderful dancers/actors gliding from room to room, bringing the source material to life and exploring various moments of Greek mythology. My working theory is that we are in the afterlife, with Hades and the rest, watching the tormented souls of Agamemnon, of Clytemnestra, of Iphigenia (and more, and more) looping round eternally throughout their lives. It’s beautiful and haunting, and I wish I could do it again and again.

Nathan: It was glaringly obvious that on every visit to The Burnt City, you could choose to have an entirely different evening. The extensive cast - all immeasurable in talent - are often chased by audience members through the world, with some audience members seemingly determined to follow that character's journey, and theirs alone. If I was to visit the Burnt City again, I would engage in this grand game of cat and mouse. As a seemingly endless world with similarly endless possibilities and interactions to engage with, I did at times long for a more cohesive story to follow but much-like in modern-day London, there are characters, stories and dark corners of the city you may struggle to find and follow, unless you’re looking really hard.

Theo: I wonder if perhaps the experience was slightly dulled by my not having done a Punchdrunk before. I flitted aimlessly for a long time without seeing any character’s arc through to completion. Not to say this is the wrong way but for someone who quite likes a story, I struggled to piece together exactly what was going on and did find myself wondering on a few occasions “so what’s it all about then?”. But for someone who likes open worlds, and exploring, and excitement, and opening doors to rooms you feel like you shouldn’t be in, I was in immersive heaven. And even when I did wonder what I was doing, or where I was, or who that was that just ran past, or why everyone was following her, I was never, not once in nearly four hours of roaming, left bored.

The cabaret style bar (that is notoriously difficult to find, yet once found you realise it is massive and right in the middle of everything??) was a particular highlight. The talent on show, in this show within a show, is breathtaking.

Nathan: Breathtaking and oh-my-goodness so fun. This is where the genius of the world clicked for me. Characters that I had fleetingly interacted with or walked past two-hours prior, wandered into the bar - ‘oh look it’s that guy we saw taking psychedelics in the greenhouse!’ I muttered to Theo. This space acted as a simultaneous escape for both us and the characters, a haven to escape the chaos of the Burnt City. A place to dance like it never happened.

Theo: Each time I thought I’d spent enough time at the bar and had convinced myself to reenter the Burnt City, a new song or a new character or a new game would start up and I’d plonk myself back down on my seat and sit, mouth agape, staring at the wonderful performers up on that beautifully lit stage. And I truly would like to do it again. And again. And again. I’m sure there are bits I missed. Great bits, perhaps best bits. But I’m happy with how I spent my first trip there.

Nathan: Not to forget the mind-boggling magic trick that left us both as confused and giddy as you could possibly get. How did they do it?!

Theo: On the way in I overheard a group of people having a conversation about the experience that started with one member of the group asking another: “Is this your first time?” It probably does take a few goes round to wring the most out of this show and I think there is certainly a conversation to be had about who your work is for when you create an immersive experience with multiple endings, that can be experienced multiple times, whilst charging £90 a go. And though the scale of it all goes some way to justifying the price tag, it would be nice to see a few more concessions on offer.

The Burnt City is booking until the 8th December, tickets and more info are available here.

Photo by Julian Abrams. Performers: Andrea Carrucciu and Dafni Krazoudi

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