Punchdrunk: The Burnt City, review

Whether you can identify those concerned is another matter. This alt-reality, with sci-fi and film noir elements, is mainly populated by the spectators; there are fleeting, cryptic vignettes by costumed performers, often entailing a lot of movement and meaningful looks. Who is that muscle-bound warrior, crouching beside oil-drums and watching an illicit-seeming pas de deux in a courtyard? How much you can decipher depends on ready knowledge of the ancient world and basic luck too – being in the right place to witness something.  

Overall, the event takes about three hours to negotiate, the vast bespoke realm comprising two distinct zones of exploration that correspond with the warring sides. As ever participants – rendered impassive by white masks, and at the start here requested to remain mute – turn sleuth, combing every nook and cranny and trying to fathom situation and story on the hoof.

Be warned: plunged into Troy’s intricate, quasi infernal labyrinth, your mind won’t wander in boredom but it might short-circuit. As you rove narrow passageways, beset by loud ominous sounds, and assailed by dizzying flickering lights – darting into a florists, checking out umpteen desolate hotel rooms, and more besides – the non-linear, non-literal overload lays siege to sanity. 

For every ‘through the wardrobe’ moment of wonder I experienced there were times when I felt as if I was banging my head against a brick wall.

For me, the huge redeeming feature lay in the closing sections, amid the cavernous and palatial Greek area: shiver-making, brutal and beautiful scenes recognisable from The Oresteia and a final frenzied dance that transcends time, like a Grecian urn coming to life.  The future of theatre? It feels a little too variable – however knowingly so – for that, but it still undoubtedly brings the past to all-consuming life with inventive twists and turns, and obsessive passion.

Tickets: punchdrunk.com


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