Inside Punchdrunk’s radical immersive theatre show, The Burnt City

For its new retelling of the Trojan War, the theatre company has built a full, functioning city in a series of London warehouses

Since its foundation in 2000, Punchdrunk has staged performances everywhere from industrial warehouses, to a disused post office, to a decommissioned nuclear bunker. Its recent years, the Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More even saw the immersive theatre company transform abandoned spaces in New York and Shanghai into a noir-themed 1930s hotel. For its latest show, though, Punchdrunk is coming home.

Titled The Burnt City, the new performance spans two warehouse buildings in Woolwich, south east London – Punchdrunk’s new, permanent home after years on the road. At the start of the show, viewers enter through a museum of Greek antiquities, and emerge in the middle of the Trojan War, a mythical conflict between Ancient Greece and the city of Troy, spread across “one hundred plus rooms”.

In one warehouse, the set (though the word ‘set’ feels like an understatement) is modelled on Mycenae, the settlement that the Greek king Agamemnon established to launch his assault on Troy. As the frontline of the war, the landscape is littered with dystopian checkpoints and anti-tank structures, echoing sci-fi classics such as Stalker, but also – in a grim twist of fate – real images emerging from the war in Ukraine. Looking over this no-mans-land, meanwhile, is Agamenon’s chamber, where furniture morphs into an altar for his concubine, and dramatic lighting design (by director Felix Barrett, in collaboration with FragmentNine and Ben Donoghue) communicates missives from the gods.

On the other side of the divide, Troy tells a different story. Despite the conflict outside its walls, the besieged city is thriving, and viewers are free to traverse clubs, cafes, tenement blocks, and a love hotel where each room is steeped in myth (look out for the Aphrodite-themed bed in the shape of a clamshell). As in Mycenae, the labyrinthine city borrows imagery from the sci-fi canon, taking direct inspiration from the red light district of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the underground culture of Weimar Germany. “We always love the crackle of electricity that comes from two opposing sources rubbing against each other,” Barrett explains.

Similarly, the show’s costumes throw chronology to the wind. Representing “a sort of dreaming between past and future”, sculpted breastplates and cloaks sit alongside clothing influenced by the likes of Thom Browne, Helmut Newton, and Berlin nightlife in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Choreographer and co-director of The Burnt City Maxine Doyle also namechecks the “anarchy” of Alexander McQueen. “He’s always sitting in the room with us a little bit,” she tells Dazed. “Although there are no real direct references.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with Punchdrunk productions and the above description hasn’t tipped you off: this is not a traditional theatre experience. While actors perform scenes from two ancient plays, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (translated by Ted Hughes) and Euripides’ Hecuba, viewers are free to wander at will, opening doors and getting down on their hands and knees to crawl through secret passages. If you wanted, you could spend the whole time at the bar “watching gods duet”.

Below, Dazed talks to Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle about their monumental new project, how to avoid FOMO amid a performance that’s impossible to experience in its entirety, and why the timeless myths that informed The Burnt City feel particularly important today.

How does it feel to be back in London, in Punchdrunk’s new home?

Felix Barrett: We’ve waited for many, many years. It’s been a long time, much longer than we ever anticipated. But it’s been worth the eight-year wait, because at least now we have a permanent home.

Is it true that you looked around here for a space when you first founded the company?

Felix Barrett: Yeah [Laughs]. It was ridiculous. Looking for a space was the first thing we ever did together, in 2002. Sleep No More ran for two weeks and on the last night 100 people came to see it, and we couldn’t believe it. And we’re trying to find a space, ringing up all the councils, and Greenwich says, ‘Oh yes, we’ve got this amazing space in Woolwich’. We came to see it and just the scale of it was ludicrous. And so it’s kind of amazing and quite humbling that we’re now back here 20 years later.

And how long has the idea for The Burnt City been in the works?

Maxine Doyle: As an idea, it’s over a decade old. Felix had the original concept when we were working in some buildings in Southampton Row.

Felix Barrett: We lost them, we lost the space, but there was always the idea to go into two different buildings. As is often the way in site-based work, the buildings fell through. So we were at a point where we cast the show, we were about to start the build, and it fell away. I think we thought it might be gone forever. And then, six years ago, we were shown this space and it blew our minds. Not only was it going back to two separate buildings, but also the scale was so mythic in its stature that it worked a little better. So even though it was quite bruising, the delay, maybe the gods were looking for out for us and knew this was the right space.

Maxine Doyle: I suppose the blessing of such a grand delay is it really meant that we’ve been able to go deep into the subject matter, into the mythology, into the plays. We worked with a brilliant classicist as a dramaturg and as an advisor, and it’s really allowed us to go into depth and really interrogate lots of these stories and make our own sense of them.

“We’ve thought about every single poster on the walls, every single letter that’s in a pocket… it all has to have substance otherwise it’s hollow” – Felix Barrett

How did you land on the fall of Troy as a subject to begin with?

Felix Barrett: It feels like a land of gods and monsters and mortals all living as one is very much in our wheelhouse. Also, the shows got denser, and everything you see in the space makes sense, nothing’s just surface. So we need quite a dense starting point, and the Greeks are the bedrock of theatre – almost all stories can chart their way back to the Greeks. And so it was ripe, we knew we wanted to go there. Then getting two buildings, you suddenly realise that it’s the fabled Tale of Two Cities, the battle of Troy and Mycenae. It’s always been a passion to use the Greeks, but honing in on the two plays was all because of the building. It’s now turned out to be crazily prescient as the situation evolves in Ukraine.

Maxine Doyle: Actually watching life unfold in front of us, real time, shifted the lens. There’s a bit of responsibility, a responsibility of the images that we’re presenting. It’s feeling very charged and sensitive.

Felix Barrett: We always imagined it as a war requiem, and now it feels urgent as a piece. It’s amazing how over the years, as world events have undulated, all of it’s there within the Greek material. Climate disasters, geopolitical battles, these huge, vast power struggles. What’s so good is the plays speak to the essence of the impact on family, core humanity.

In terms of modernising Tory and Mycenae, what did you keep, cut, or change for today’s audience?

Felix Barrett:  The resonance of the turmoil and the conflict we don’t really have to adapt at all, because it’s timeless. It’s largely the setting for the plays [that changed]. The plays are literally beat-for-beat as Euripides or Aeschylus envisioned and wrote, but we’ve reimagined the landscape they exist in as a sort of parallel future, sort of an imagined 1920s. It could be in the past, it could be in the future. It’s a fever dream. That’s been one of the fun parts of it, layering a dystopic sci-fi veneer on top, and almost like doing a bronze rubbing you work out which elements rise to the top. Setting it in the future, we also decided to take out weapons, and arrows, and swords. 

Maxine Doyle: It’s not swords and sandals.

How do you want the audience to approach a Punchdrunk show? Do people not worry that they’ve missed a secret passageway their friend crawled through?

Felix Barrett: Yeah. And the truth is that they are missing stuff. Hopefully, if the design’s good enough, they haven’t crawled through it because they haven’t found it. We don’t want everyone to do everything. If anything, it’s a lot more about you as an individual, about your approach to life. Some people will want to latch on to one of the lead protagonists in the plays and follow them and get the main arc of the narrative and that’s fantastic. Other people might want to explore, and go rooting out secret passages and the inhabitants that lurk in the shadows. Other people might just want to go to the bar and watch the gods duet.

Maxine Doyle: Hopefully some people have no expectation and no clue and really just really go with the flow. We’re really excited about people who want to come and discover this for the first time, to interrogate it and shake it up.

Felix Barrett: It is worth saying that you can’t see it all and you’re not supposed to be able to. You’ll only feel FOMO if you’re not living in the moment. We just ask our audiences to be present, and then they’ll all discover their own moments.

Maxine Doyle: It can be frustrating, a Punchdrunk show. Frustrating and irritating to begin with, but I think the more time audiences spend in the building, then there is a rich experience to be had. But it’s not necessarily going to arrive at your feet.

“Every single audience member will have a different reading, and – unless they’re holding hands – will actually have a different show” – Felix Barrett

In popular mythology, the fall of Troy is also about the rebirth of a civilisation. How do you think that resonates in 2022?

Maxine Doyle: I think everything I make is about rebirth actually, somehow, somewhere. I think, particularly in this piece, we’re trying to find optimism and hope, even out of the darkness. A chance for a reawakening of some description.

Felix Barrett: We always said – and it feels more even more prescient today than it did at the beginning – that even though it’s two different buildings, two different nations, it’s one show. The idea of a coin being the signifier for that. On one hand, it’s a war requiem, it’s about grief and the impact of conflict and loss. On the other side of the coin, there is a chance of rebirth and a chance for hope and a chance for catharsis, to right the wrongs of the past. I think that’s what we hope, that this show contains both.