Punchdrunk has created a model of immersive theater all its own. With shows like The Masque of the Red Death, The drowned man and It was like a kissthey became the creators of ever more elaborate universes, the purveyors of a sort of enveloping sensation which built up an immense audience for them.
The burnt city is their biggest show to date. Across two buildings and 100,000 square feet in Woolwich, southeast London, they tackle the epic story of the Trojan War, dedicating one building to Greece and one to Troy. It’s an astonishing act of theatrical bravery, shot through with unforgettable imagery and gripping scenes, and yet it left me impressed rather than involved.
I have a problem with immersive theater like this and it’s not just because of my type of myopia that I have trouble negotiating a dark space. Especially when wearing a Greek theater style mask. My real problem is that I yearn for the drama to have a narrative line; I want an author, whether it’s Euripides or Jeremy O. Harris, to take me by the hand and give me a rough idea of what they’re thinking.
All the interest of The burnt city is that you must find your own way through its labyrinthine halls and take an individual journey among its multiple stories; it terrifies me to miss a vital clue.
My own story began in Mycenae, all vast resonant spaces. Here, beautiful Iphigenia is sent jumping across a long dining table under bright lights, rigged by her mother Clytemnestra as if on her wedding day. But then she dons a blood-red robe and walks to meet her father Agamemnon in the gray space below; and he sacrifices her on a giant cross leaning to the side in order to obtain a favorable wind to take his army to Troy.
All of this is beautifully staged. Co-director Maxine Doyle’s choreography throughout is utterly transporting, movement chosen to express and communicate feelings. Felix Barrett’s direction is equally bold and detailed; the actors move among you, quite real, completely in their roles.
The design of Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns shares the same quality of attention. Once you’re in Troy – all the little streets shut down, full of shops with bright neon names like Hesperides, and nightclubs called things like Divine Destiny – the level of care is almost overwhelming; every room and space is fully realized. You enter one of them and find a woman in tears and stockings drying over a bath; in another and there is a man getting dressed; in a third and another man struggles, bleeding from his eyes.
The spaces even smell subtly different – and Mycenae is noticeably cooler than Troy. As the huge, thundering soundtrack assaults your ears, the episodes mark on your eyes. I saw women in a nightclub murdering a man then drinking his blood, and a sultry sad dance of despair as another woman stood beneath a man’s hanging body, while smoke rose around from U.S. I got back to Greece in time to see Agamemnon murdered in the shower; I saw a woman picking up antler bones; I was in the Bar of Troy when Hecuba and Cassandra marched majestically with their heads held high to salute the conquering Greeks and saw Cassandra murdered for her pains.
Most of the time, however, I had no idea what was going on. Maybe it’s my fault: it’s a play that seems to require a better understanding of the intricacies of ancient myth and Greek and Roman literature than I actually have. But because I was confused, the emotional impact of all this immense work was less powerful than it should have been.
At the very end, after three hours, I was back in the marketplace of Troy, and witnessed Hecuba blinding Polymnestor in revenge for the murder of her own son. Or at least I think I did. What I actually saw was a dance of tiny disco steps, and a man being captured by a crowd of women, one of whom was gouging out her eyes. She then stands under a rain of sand. It was beautiful and memorable, but I longed for more to help me make sense of it.