‘Adrenaline-fuelled’: Punchdrunk return with the horrifically timely siege of Troy | Theatre
Punchdrunk, the company that has for 20 years enthralled theatregoers by exploding traditional dramatic form and setting performers and audiences loose into the same vast, detailed, labyrinthine spaces, is taking on what might be the biggest, most fundamental story of them all – and one, alas, with terrible resonance in this particular moment. It is the siege of Troy: the subject of Homer’s Iliad, the focus of many Greek tragedies and, in many ways, the literary war that has, over millennia, served as a proxy for thinking about other, more recent conflicts.
The Burnt City will be the company’s first show on a large scale in the UK since 2013, when it turned an old sorting office near Paddington station in London into a flyblown old Hollywood for The Drowned Man, a version of Büchner’s Woyzeck. The company has, after two decades of finding different spaces in which to make work, acquired a permanent building of its own in Woolwich. “After being nomadic for all this time, we just missed London,” says Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s artistic director. The cavernous space, once part of the Royal Arsenal, is at 100,000 sq ft big enough for even this company’s wild ambition.
Not that Punchdrunk hasn’t been busy. Its trademark shows – in which the audience, wearing masks, are at liberty to follow their own instincts through the performance space, picking up fragments of wordless narrative as they go – have become sensations elsewhere. At the moment the company has two productions of Sleep No More, a version of Macbeth, running concurrently in New York and Shanghai. Barrett has dipped into TV with The Third Day, an experimental drama starring Jude Law and Naomie Harris, and there have been partnerships with big brands.
The commercially produced Sleep No More in New York has been both hugely popular (it has been running for a decade, give or take the pandemic) and, to some, a disappointment, with its add-on champagne tickets, bars and pricey restaurants. In the wake of #MeToo, there were also disturbing allegations by performers and ex-performers of episodes of sexual harassment by audience members. I’m assured that the company has instituted a raft of improved safety measures, including the audience being instructed to stay at a respectful distance from artists, an intimacy director to help them manage one-on-one performance moments, and alert buttons in some of the rooms.
The last Punchdrunk show I saw was It Felt Like a Kiss in Manchester in 2009, as part of the city’s international festival, and it ended with me being terrified into a panicked sprint by a barely glimpsed performer apparently wielding a chainsaw. Afterwards, I found it hard to shake the feeling that the audience had been treated rather cheaply, even though I’d been excited by their early work, such as Faust in 2006 and The Masque of the Red Death a year later.
Curiosity about Punchdrunk’s immersive approach to Greek tragedy is enough to tempt me back. Certainly, the immense space is shaping up to be thrilling, as becomes clear when its designers – longtime Punchdrunk collaborators Livi Vaughan and Bea Minns – show me around the set-in-progress. The huge warehouse is divided into two zones: Greece and Troy. To enter this world, the audience passes through a kind of liminal zone: a make-believe museum that, when the creators describe it to me, reminds me a bit of the 2019 Troy exhibition at the British Museum. It will contain objects resembling, for instance, Attic black-figure vases. “If people look carefully, they will see scenes represented on them that happen in the show later on,” says Vaughan – such as the killing of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, sacrificed to ensure a fair wind for the Greek troops to Troy.
As visitors pass through the exhibit, something will happen – a ritual of a sort – and the audience will be whirled into a different world. Turn one way and you’ll be in Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The feel for this city is, as Vaughan says, “stark and epic and big”, with a classicising style that’s overlaid (because Punchdrunk never does things straightforwardly) with the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – hints of 1920s art deco in a slightly sci-fi mode. Everywhere is brimming with details that might wash over you or might not, depending on what you pick up along the way, or what you know already. For example, there’s a metallic panel that depicts, if you have the eyes to see it, an eagle killing a pregnant hare, which is a portent described in the opening chorus of Agamemnon.
Then Vaughan and Minns walk me through to Troy, where the feeling is instantly different. This part of the show, says Minns, is “much more bustling. There’s an atmosphere of decadence, of parties, of Weimar.” The level of detail is again almost bewildering. Later, Barrett tells me about the Japanese lanterns, for instance, that they’ve had made up – a nod to Yoshiwara, the nightclub in Lang’s Metropolis – with Linear B script written on them, but in the calligraphic style used for kanji. Finding someone who could render a text into the writing system of Mycenaean Crete was a task for their classical adviser, Emma Cole – who got the director of the scholarly institution the British School at Athens on the job.
Vaughan and Minns take me up into a building and walk me through a series of rooms which, after a bit of prompting, I identify as spaces meant for, or perhaps recently vacated by, denizens of the Underworld’s prison of Tartarus: mythical characters such as Salmoneus, a king who insisted on being worshipped like a god and who imitated Zeus’s thunderbolts; or Ascalaphus, the guardian of Hades’ orchard, turned into a screech owl by the goddess Demeter after he revealed that Persephone, her daughter, had eaten a single pomegranate seed in the Underworld and was thus doomed to spend part of every year in that shadowy realm. No, neither of these characters are in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon or Euripides’ Hecuba, which are the core texts used by Barrett and choreographer and co-director Maxine Doyle; the layering-in of the realm of Hades is yet another palimpsest in what promises to be a dense and rich story.
The show has been a long time in the making, Barrett tells me. It was back in 2010 that he and Doyle first thought about doing a version of the Trojan war story. But “we lost the building”, he says, “and we ended up doing The Drowned Man instead”. Doyle takes me back to basics to describe their approach to their chosen plays. “We take all of the characters of those texts, and the plot lines and the narrative beats. And we play with all of those to create something that’s almost like a set of film-script treatments for each character scene, and each character has about 11 or 12 scenes. Then we layer those stories on top of each other. We adhere very closely to the text, but we use it as a stimulus or a starting point to create an abstract language of dance and movement, and prop and gesture and action, and we take away the spoken word. And we focus much more on the sort of emotional and subtexts of pieces.”
In so doing, they also draw on lots of other texts and research, which is also where Cole – a specialist in the reception of classical drama at Bristol University – comes in. “Just this morning, one of the dancers, who’s playing Apollo, asked me if I could give them any texts that feature Apollo and Artemis together,” Cole tells me, “because they wanted to look at the language that those two characters might have. Not just verbal, but how they engage with one another.” She gave them references from The Iliad and The Odyssey, and also told them about a tragedy about Niobe (“Lost, very sadly!”), whose children are killed by the arrow-wielding divine siblings.
All along, says Barrett, Punchdrunk’s project has been about trying to hoick theatre out of the age-old formula in which “you go through the motions, you get the tickets, you sit down and wait for the curtain to come up, you’re physically inactive and only a small sliver of your brain is being used”. Their approach, “has been about trying to do the opposite of that, so it’s adrenaline-fuelled, the audience’s synapses are firing, they’re sensorily aware and actually having to make decisions about who they follow, or where they go, or what to avoid”.
When The Burnt City opens, there will be a whole new generation of British theatregoers who haven’t seen the company’s large-scale work before; and a whole swathe of older audience members, starved of experiences by the various Covid confinements, who will doubtless be keen to give them another go. It will be intriguing to see whether the company can produce the frisson of freshness and excitement it did at the beginning of the century: whether the work still produces that feeling that Barrett lives for, that “the audience owns their show, and they’re alive in it”.
The Burnt City is at 1 Cartridge Place, London, from 22 March to 28 August.