THE BURNT CITY at One Cartridge Place, Woolwich
If you want to know why Punchdrunk leads the world in making theatre that is epic, immersive and immaculate, look no further than the company’s new promenade piece, The Burnt City, in Woolwich. This extraordinary interpretation of the Fall of Troy and its bloody aftermath will take your breath away and blow your mind.
Designers Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns have created a low-lit maze of streets and squares lined with shops, bars and homes that not only reflect the layout of ancient cities like Troy but also nod to that most famous of all mazes, the labyrinth Daedalus created to hold the Minotaur.
Theseus, you may recall, needed the help of a ball of twine to escape the labyrinth. We, however, had only our own wits to rely on as Punchdrunk directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle made us don bird-masks before showing us into their maze and leaving us to find our own way through the two-level set, passing through unsigned doors, often wandering in circles, occasionally straying into dead-ends but always stumbling – eventually – on to some intimate scene or spectacular set piece where, wraith-like, we could watch such mythological superstars as Helen of Troy, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Hecuba, Clytemnestra and Cassandra.
And over the course of three hours, I watched a series of gore-drenched sequences that included the of rape of Troy, the horrifying sacrifice of a Trojan princess – Polyxena, I think - after the Greeks burst out of their wooden horse, the agony of Hecuba as she saw her royal children butchered and the gruesome hubristic deaths of many of the Greek heroes in the aftermath of their triumph.
But this was no straight retelling of the story of Troy found in the works of Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus and Virgil – this was a complex interpretation of an epic that has captured the human imagination for thousands of years. Dialogue has been largely replaced by action, dance, mime and movement which, accompanied by a wonderfully claustrophobic and esoteric soundscape designed by Stephen Dobbie, gave the whole experience a sense of the praeternatural.
And the cast was utterly fearless, despite the physical, psychological and emotional intensity demanded of them. Not only did they have to act but they also had to dance, sing and – in many cases – use circus skills as they swung from ropes or clambered on to ledges high above the watchers below. They also had to avoid us, the audience, as we wove among them. Their skills, stamina and resolve were nothing short of miraculous.
Punchdrunk - which is now based at the Woolwich Works arts hub - has always tried to push the bounds of what is possible in theatre and there is no doubt that this Trojan tragedy represents yet another astonishing leap forward. I recommend it unreservedly.
The Burnt City is now on at One Cartridge Place, Woolwich. For more info and to book tickets go to https://www.punchdrunk.com/project/theburntcity/