The burnt city
Woolwich Arsenal, London Docklands Until December 4, 3 a.m.
Punchdrunk’s latest ‘immersive’ show is staged in a sprawling warehouse at Woolwich Arsenal. A dimly lit and dusty museum exhibit, ogling ancient artefacts in the dim light, is the starting point for this odyssey into the world of Homer’s Iliad.
Over your Covid mask, you must put on a plastic mask like those worn by the actors of the Greek tragedies. It’s clammy and hard to see or navigate. If you ask the ushers where to go, they say, boringly, “Let fate be your guide”.
But as Punchdrunk fans proclaim, the show isn’t about knowing anything. It’s all about the journey.
Beautifully staged to Hans Zimmer-esque music, The Burnt City has no dialogue and is not a show for those who don’t like to feel lost.
The town square of Troy has a café, a bar, a clothing store and a cinema. The Greek camp (passing through a checkpoint) is dark, with fences and soldiers in greatcoats. The bedrooms lead to other bedrooms. Actors with the muscles of acrobats twist in slow motion.
Hecuba and Agamemnon are obvious but no one else in the cast is; name tags would help.
There is no dialogue. It is apparently based on the play Hecuba by Euripides and Agamemnon by Aeschylus. But as an experience, it’s oddly short on the painful, hand-over-mouth horror of these ancient pieces.
There are still moments of greatness. For example, a frantic Charleston dance leads up a flight of stairs to a human sacrifice on a huge steel beam. There is a trickle of blood in the woman’s neck. The gods are reconciled.
It’s beautifully staged to music à la Hans Zimmer.
This is not a show for those who don’t like to feel lost. I dragged myself into an antler-strewn bedroom where two women twisted and then dropped my glasses in the sand. Elsewhere, a couple draped themselves in crimson offal – in a mess.
In one of the many boudoirs, there was a bed covered in stuffed owls. By the beard of Zeus, what is it? This is not an evening with answers – or an interval. The cast vibrates to the sound of techno music in a thunderous finale.
I came out not immersed and sore but amazed by the designs.