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Is storytelling a thing of the past?
A look at The Burnt City, immersive theatre by Punchdrunk.
Towards the end of the school holidays, and on another balmy summer’s evening in London, I followed many eager audience members from Woolwich tube station to No 1 Cartridge Place – Punchdrunk’s new venue in the East End of London. It was a much anticipated performance by the world renowned masters of immersive theatre.
For those of you who haven’t experienced a Punchdrunk performance, here’s a little essential information. The company which has been around since 2000 was formed by Felix Barrett who is still the Artistic Director. Punchdrunk are considered the spark that lit the entertainment industry’s love of immersive experiences. Over the last 20 years we’ve seen an explosion of immersive theatrical and storytelling companies such as Shunt and Secret Cinema. And to stamp their authority even further on contemporary theatre you’ll find Punchdrunk essential reading as part of drama student syllabuses in the UK.
Their core idea is to encourage the audience to roam in and amongst the performers and sets. No one tells you where to go – you explore for yourself. Audiences also wear Venetian style masks which they say gives you anonymity and also encourages you not to talk during the 3 hour performance – both of which work. I pause here for a moment. If the idea of wearing a COVID mask as well as a second mask sounds a little claustrophobic for 3 hours then perhaps give this one a miss or accept that you’ll be uncomfortable until you find the bar (and that’s definitely worth finding).
On entering, you’ll be asked to handover your bags and coats. Phones aren’t allowed either but you will be provided with a lockable black wallet so you have a way of paying for drinks during the performance. From there you’ll wait as a group for a staggered start. But be aware, Punchdrunk’s idea is to split you up from your party so don’t imagine this is a social or shared experience. It’s designed to be about your personal reaction and connection with the performance which is pretty special when you think about it.
Now to The Burnt City – their latest work which runs in London till early December 2022.
Based on the myths of the Trojan War the performance takes place in cavernous warehouse spaces. You walk from room to room, encountering objects and installations and occasionally actors who don’t speak but move around quietly. The mood is eerie, created in part by the set design but mainly by the lighting and incredible sound design which is still my standout memory of the entire performance. As you move around the spaces you will fall upon breath-taking contemporary dance pieces which are dramatic although hard to interpret at times. At some point you may find the bar which is also part of the performance - it’s quite a different atmosphere and perhaps I’ll leave it at that so you can experience the bonkers but brilliant cabaret for yourself.
By the end of the evening, Punchdrunk want you to feel uneasy and I think they achieve that pretty well. You may feel differently when you visit but I found myself thinking about it for several days trying to work out what I really thought of it all. Did I like it? Sort of. Did I appreciate it? Yes. Did I connect emotionally with it? No I didn’t. And that last part troubles me because I think emotional connection is so very important with experience-making of any sort – whether on top of a mountain or enjoying the treasures of a museum exhibit. In the case of The Burnt City I think my problem was the fragmented storytelling. I simply couldn’t connect the dots enough to feel anything for the characters or for the environment. Does this matter? For me yes it does in this context. Story helps draw us in and from there we can get lost in our own imagination or in the case of Burnt City lost in a dreamlike state within an incredibly immersive environment. In my view The Burnt City is impressive but stronger storytelling would definitely have helped make it exceptional.
Go and see Burnt City if you can. Your experience and understanding of the piece will be different to mine and that is perhaps its greatest strength.
Rosalind Johnson, Co-founder A Different View.