Absolutely reviews ‘The Burnt City’, a new immersive production by Punchdrunk Theatre that is a stylish, exciting and disorientating depiction of the fall of Troy.
Words Pendle Harte
A couple is dancing on a vast concrete slab. They’re passing an unidentified yet abject fleshy, bloody thing between them and soon there’s a lot of blood everywhere. We follow them to a shower, where we watch as they wash the blood away. It’s certainly the first time I’ve seen a working shower in a performance space. But this is no ordinary performance: this is Punchdrunk’s new show, and we’re not an ordinary audience either. Wearing identical beaked masks, we crowd around the actors and move freely around the vast and disorientating Woolwich Works, where Punchdrunk’s new permanent home promises a future of elaborate immersive productions like this.
The Burnt City is a big show based loosely on the story of the fall of Troy. It opens in a dimly lit museum space, where a variety of artefacts in glass cases refer to the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia. Stripped of our phones, we’re released into the action, though the action’s not always easy to find. It’s a disorientating space on what seems like several levels, taking in a sandy wasteland, an industrial ruin and an abandoned tent settlement – this is the Greek city of Mycenae and we must decide which paths to follow.
Actors appear from nowhere and lead us to witness fragments of wordless action in dance and mime in a space that feels apocalyptic and terror-filled – yet strangely empty. We follow Agamemnon upstairs to the concrete slab and the shower – and here we witness Iphigenia – having been sacrificed by her father earlier – transform herself into a bear in a 1920s style childhood bedroom. Downstairs again and through a labyrinthine network of corridors (are we in the right place? Or is it the fire exit?) we enter the city of Troy, which is a neon-lit urban sprawl, all tacky shops and red light district chic.
This is where we find the bar, where there’s a lively cabaret act in full swing (here’s a tip: don’t rely on your phone as a method of payment, because you won’t have it, and we couldn’t buy any drinks). Following a diminutive character who is killed and folded into a suitcase, we find a series of movingly detailed domestic scenes – these are the abandoned homes of the destroyed city, where people have fled mid-card game, or mid-laundry hanging. A grand finale comes too soon and leaves us wanting to return another night. And by the time you read this, the Elizabeth Line will be up and running, making the trip to Woolwich a breeze.