Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City – a thrilling tale of two cities during the Trojan war [London]

Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City – a thrilling tale of two cities during the Trojan war [London]

Punchdrunk returns to London

Punchdrunk has become famous for its commercially produced and hugely popular Sleep No More in New York, which has been running for over a decade now. In its latest production, the infamous immersive theatre company took on one of the fundamental stories of Greek mythology: The siege of Troy. Not only is it the focus of many Greek tragedies, but also resonates in an unsettling way with more recent conflicts.

The productions of Punchdrunk have become known for the unique experience they offer. The audience is wearing white masks and given the liberty of exploring the performance space at their own discretion. For three hours, they can discover numerous thoughtfully designed and decorated rooms and encounter performers that move between those spaces. The narrative is largely devoid of words and relies on visitors’ observation of the performers’ interactions with each other and their physical surroundings. The plot is told in a non-linear way, as it is split up between the various characters who move through the vast performance space. As a result, visitors can only observe fragments of the story, depending on how they move through the premises and which characters they choose to follow.

Punchdrunk Image2
Punchdrunk Image The Burnt City from https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/punchdrunk-burnt-city-immersive-troy_54837.html

 

A tale of two cities

The location for The Burnt City is a large warehouse in Woolwich, which was part of the former Royal Arsenal and spans over an area of 100,000 square feet. The space is divided into two zones, telling the story of two cities: Mycenae and Troy. Before entering this world, the audience is guided through a make-believe museum to transition from the present to the times of ancient Greece. The exhibits consist of objects discovered by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann during his excavations in Hissarlik, now presumed to be the site of Troy. If you pay careful attention, you may be able to recognize the scenes depicted on the vases later on happening during the show. They represent some of the key events in the story, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia by the hands of her own father, King Agamemnon, to ensure a fair wind for the Greek warships on their way to Troy.

Upon entering the main site of The Burnt City, visitors become immersed in a dreamlike world that has little to do with how we might imagine ancient Greece. Instead, Troy is a lively city with restaurants, stores and sake bars. On the upper floor, visitors can enter Hecuba’s lush and luxurious bedroom, and in the adjacent rooms, encounter members of the upper class celebrating, dancing and drinking. Troy is reminiscent of the aesthetics of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, blending the art deco style of the 1920s with a slight science fiction atmosphere. Mycenae, on the other hand, is a vast, dark and largely empty space, dominated by two massive constructions made of steel beams. It is the dystopian site where the Greek soldiers besiege Troy, and it is filled with the gloomy atmosphere of awaiting a final, devastating conflict.

Punchdrunk The Burnt City
Copyright Punchdrunk The Burnt City

 

A word of advice

The Burnt City is based on two Greek tragedies: Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’ Hecuba. But visitors may also encounter other characters of Greek mythology that do not feature in these plays. One of them is Chronos, the personification of time in pre-Socratic philosophy, who is often seen carrying a broom, sweeping the streets of Troy and rearranging props. First-time visitors of a Punchdrunk show may feel overwhelmed or at least somewhat confused by the lack of guidance or the fragmentary narrative. Therefore, it is advisable to familiarize yourself with the stories of Agamemnon and Hecuba in order to make sense of what you are about to witness and recognize the characters that the performers embody in the show.

The thrill of freely exploring the show at your own discretion also comes at the cost of a nagging fear of missing out on what is happening elsewhere. For example, there are two grand finales – one taking place in Troy, the other in Mycenae – of which you will only be able to witness one. The structure of Punchdrunk’s shows will always leave you with a feeling that there is yet so much more to discover. Some visitors, thus, return to see The Burnt City for multiple times to follow different performers and uncover more of the multiple storylines and secrets that the numerous may hold.

 

The Burnt City offers a very visceral and dreamlike experience – and it’s definitely a must see for fans of immersive theatre. To enjoy the show and fully immerse yourself in the epic world of a sci-fied ancient Greece that Punchdrunk created, it might be best to follow the words of its choreographer Maxine Doyle: “Don’t overthink it – do your thinking afterwards. It’s about being present and investing time, which is sometimes difficult within the world we live in. Be patient, and you’ll find that soon enough, things will arrive around you that are exciting.”[1]

 

The Burnt City is at 1 Cartridge Place, London, from 22 March to the 4th of December 2022.

https://onecartridgeplace.com/theburntcity/

[1] https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/theatre/punchdrunk-the-burnt-city-behind-the-scenes-woolwich-b989141.html (7.4.22).

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