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Losing the Plot: Review of Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City

I’m stalking through a darkened tunnel laced with sand, past ancient relics, battling curses and fearful of my fellow journeymen. The tunnel opens to an atrium entertaining a wedding and a fight. I’m locked in a cage with a brawling Agamemnon before one hundred masked onlookers peering in, trying to quell my nerves and bide the directive not to speak (or scream). This is as good as it gets. I’m at Punchdrunk’s new immersive show – their first in a decade, and also their largest, or so the spiel goes… I’ve journeyed, like the eponymous hero, across boats, lands, cities and Ubers (OK, maybe our Greek king didn’t enlist the latter) to reach the farthest reaches of Woolwich. Two hours later, I’m deliberating whether I’ve been struck by the siren’s curse as well.

Punch Drunk has produced my favourite theatre experiences – I’d booked tickets for The Burnt City upon release, queued since announcement. The company are pioneers of immersive theatre, and I was an early champion. Their previous two UK shows – The Drowned Man, in the mesmeric sprawling environs of the former Paddington post office converted into a noirish vision that transported the audience behind the tawdry mis-en-scenes of the silver screen across individual journeys through 1950s Tinsel Town, following and meeting characters we wanted to seduce or save against sets that impressed. More recently, Small Wonders was a spellbinding and brilliant production for children in which the theatregoers entered Nanny Lacey’s flat, then climbed through her fridge to enter an enchanted forest. Each of these worked excellently for their, respectively, absence of narrative structure and linear thread. The problem with The Burnt City, is it aims for both but achieves neither. There’s no dialogue (a post lockdown Covid precaution, perhaps?) and characters lead audience-goers to enclaves where either the action stops and passengers find themselves chaperoning an actor sitting in stillness on the floor or winding back to acts they’ve already seen. Less Hades’ Troy, as it was designed as, more minotaur’s labyrinth, the intention is for the viewer to experience feeling lost, naïveté and confused, but it sometimes feels like the creators were. A case of the blind leading the blind, rather than Electra wielding her power.

Early immersive theatre felt like the brave new world, a sphere that had the potential to shake up the tired structure of the proscenium arch – Alice in Wonderland at The Vaults (thankfully scheduled for revival this winter), Gingerline, Phillip Pullman’s excellent Grimm Tales for Young and Old: an Immersive Fairytale were all transformative and transformational productions. The Burnt City is nightmarish for all the wrong reasons. The Ancient Greek Mycaen world, a conceit of such promise, was sparse and lacking in the detail, symbolism, imagination and epic qualities it deserved: instead all effort seemed to have been dedicated to Troy, traversing which felt less a Dantesque vision of the underworld and more a Sisyphean curse. Greek literature is famous for its structure –Aristotle was the pioneer of the story arc, the Ancient Greeks invented democracy and Agamemnon’s author Aeschylus was the godfather of tragedy, and invented the trilogy to boot (thus might the narratives therefore have been more effectively explored in three worlds rather than two?). Enacting the plotlines of Hecuba and Agememnon, filling them with detail and character but removing the arc is like turning a car manual into improv theatre. I almost wished it was me being strung up on that harness having my throat cut because then at least I’d be able to find a way to leave.

I’m afeared that immersive theatre is started feeling a lot more like Legs Akimbo than a feat of astonishment. Tight, cohesive concepts – or indeed wildly loose and experimental – which seemed to work so well in the nascent days of immersive appear to have given way to a kind of slack am dram anything goes indulgence. Immersive is also a word that is carted out overzealously. Concerts are immersive. So too are paintings, if you’ll believe gallery blurbs. My kitchen is immersive, as is my dressing table, though I’d demur from labelling them as such. Immersive or immersing? After all, everything has a style, but not everything is stylish….

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