The Burnt City by Punchdrunk – Review – ★★★
Punchdrunk’s immersive Woolwich wonder, The Burnt City is a visually stunning secret dance delight, but ultimately doesn’t capture your heart.
The Punchdrunk experience – for those who haven’t previously had the pleasure – comprises of a hefty ticket price (which is, nevertheless, pretty competitive with a mid-range ticket in the West End) granting you ‘freedom’ to explore an immersive sandbox world, choose-your-own-adventure style.
Audience members wander through the expansive sets like ghosts, wearing white, anonymising masks, with phones firmly sealed away.
The illusion of choice in The Burnt City is a complex one – you’re free to do as you wish, to a degree, but there are rules (no talking, for example) and limits (you’ll occasionally encounter a locked door which looks just like the ones you’re allowed to pass through). Some people will feel totally off the leash, perhaps even so much that they’re not sure how best to enjoy the experience, whilst others will be constantly pushing at the edges. On a busy night, audience members may feel a little like commuters changing between lines at a busy tube interchange – finding some time and space away from the crowds can be a surprising struggle even in the furthest reaches of the space.
The source text – Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba – are little known, though many will know if the stories of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, the fall of Troy and that infamous wooden horse. The Punchdrunk style of storytelling, however – practically speechless, told through movement and dance – may mean that audiences struggle to connect the scenes they witness with the source material. The overall narrative is harder to identify than with Punchdrunk’s other classic productions like Faust, Macbeth and The Masque of the Red Death.
The basic action comprises of a line up of tragic Greek myth characters wandering the labyrinthine sets and occasionally meeting others for a dance set piece. Some of these are more effective than others, with some electrifying moments from dancers like Luke Murphy and in the throbbing, pulsating finale – but none really feel like they are rooted in a coherent, overarching story.
There’s a lot of pouting and brooding between the action, and the wordlessness can sometimes feels pained. Moody looks can’t necessarily convey the depth of the Greek myths explored here. But there’s no doubting the commitment of the performers, who remaining fully embedded in their roles throughout the three hour duration.
The immersive worlds of a cyberpunk, Japanese Troy and a large desert like space are beautifully detailed, with every drawer, door and secret passage full of wonder. People are free to read books from shelves in the rooms, try every door and – if they’re lucky – find themselves in intimate situations with characters. In the latter case, the safety of audience and performer is sometimes in question, with questions of consent being given little room for exploration. Nevertheless, this does feel like a safe environment, with black-masked ‘invigilators’ in the shadows of most spaces.
Felix Barrett is the ultimate macho theatre auteur, whose vision is huge but sometimes forgets the audience member’s individual experience. This ‘world’ did seem a little repetitive and left little room for individual triumphs. The programme doesn’t even have headshots to connect us to the incredibly talented company.
The music and atmosphere at this Punchdrunk experience is unbeatable but does tend toward delayed gratification, like a crescendo building to a rather disappointing denouement.
Punchdrunk is now a corporate machine, with sponsors like Porsche, Berkeley Homes and premium VIP tickets for those wealthy enough. The venue for The Burnt City is a newly redeveloped building, unlike the pre-demolition sorting office of The Drowned Man. As such, it all feels perhaps a little too shiny and cold.
The idea that Punchdrunk occupies these warehouse spaces – in a traditionally poor area of London – is part of London’s biggest arts-washing exercise (by the developers of the Woolwich ‘Berkeley: Royal Arsenal Riverside estate’) feels uncomfortable. The production also relies on dozens of placement university students who are hopefully paid for their impressive work!
A Marmite-like immersive experience in Woolwich – there will be love and hate, and everything in between, for Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City, but either way this is undeniably ambitious spectacle on a grand scale.
I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like free, cheap & offbeat London, especially: cabaret, art, theatre, pop-ups, eating out, quirky films, museums, day trips, social enterprise & much more.
Punchdrunk's The Burnt City
Punchdrunk's immersive Woolwich wonder, The Burnt City is a visually stunning secret dance delight but ultimately doesn't capture your heart
Event Type: Event
Event Attendance Mode: OfflineEventAttendanceMode
Event Status: EventScheduled
Performer Name: Punchdrunk
Performer URL: https://www.punchdrunk.com/
Start Date: 2022-04-21 18:30
End Date: 2022-12-04 23:00
Ticket URL: https://onecartridgeplace.com/theburntcity/
Availability Starts: 2022-04-21T18:30:00