Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City

12 06 2022

Punchdrunk_s The Burnt City (Photo_ Julian Abrams. Performer_ Yilin Kong)_2848

Directed by Felix Barrett & Maxine Doyle

Choreographed by Maxine Doyle

Designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan & Beatrice Minns

Sound Design by Stephen Dobbie

Lighting Design by F9, Ben Donoghue & Felix Barrett

Costume Design by David Israel Reynoso

Audience Experience Curator Colin Nightingale

Location: One Cartridge Place, London, SE18 6ZR

Further reviews of Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City are almost rendered redundant by Andrzej Lukowski’s analysis in Time Out magazine. The review’s triumphant conclusion may fail to acknowledge how little meaning is really evident in the production, and how far this condemns directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle’s lack of engagement with the classical tragedies, archaeology and epic poetry which inspired the immersive event, yet Lukowski successfully categorises The Burnt City into its three areas of concern: the environment, the response of the audience and the performances that are scattered throughout the experience. While the excellence is suggested by the concluding eulogy for the company and the star rating, Lutowski seems keenly aware that, ultimately, The Burn City does little with the source material and, at best, offers allusive and suggestive commentary on the major themes of warfare and intrigue that appear to be important to the production.

However, Lutowski’s assertion of Punchdrunk’s importance begs a further question: what do the company say about the nature of performance, and why should they be regarded as radical innovators? Certainly, they work on an impressive scale, and there is no lack of ambition in addressing a narrative that remains at the foundation of European ideas about culture, literature and identity. Yet the immersive production is not rare, the choreography speaks to a familiar physical theatre tradition that can be traced back to Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets of the 1970s, and their interpretation of Euripides’ Hecuba, if anything, lessens the emotional power of the source script. It is perhaps in the integration of performance theory, as proposed by Richard Schechter, that Punchdrunk are at their most challenging and, escaping from the review format, a more abstract critique is demanded.

One of the features of the Punchdrunk style is the response of the audience. Because the performances of key scenes are scattered around the venue, many of the spectators chase after actors, hoping to understand their narrative thread. But everyone wears a mask, and all stand around respectfully for those moments of dance-theatre, observing the action but also inadvertently observing each other. And if that is not self-conscious enough, there are plenty of mirrors, even in this dark and confusing labyrinth. Unlike theatre in the theatre, the audience is an observable element. Much can be made of the freedom to wander alone, to find your own adventures. Yet the masked spectator is nothing more than an adornment, a frame to the action. Manipulated by the movement of the actors, desperate to find the meaning, apparent yet unable to enact, sometimes lost in the corridors between scenes, the spectator is the puppet.

In performance, a puppet is an object subject to manipulation: for humans in daily life, a puppet is an individual controlled by an outside force. The performance puppet is the inanimate given motion: the human puppet is subject to external power. In The Burnt City, the spectator is both. Simultaneously the ornamentation to performances, or, when interacting with the environment, the observed object, and moved by the shuffling between events of the performers, the spectator is reduced to a marionette, dragged by the strings of the event. The agency to move, advertised as freedom, becomes an instinctive set of reactions to the ‘gravity’ of the production. The desire to discover meaning, in an environment that is filled with detail but little trenchant commentary, becomes a rule as precise and demanding as the drag of the earth’s density.

By Gareth K Vile