It is immediately clear that Punchdrunk’s new immersive show is a massive endeavour. It resembles a gallery of antiquities on arrival: there are snaking queues, phased entrances for crowd control and a row of ancient vases, libation bowls and headdresses in glass displays.
The promenade show, a modern enactment of life in the ancient fallen city of Troy, is arranged across three Grade II-listed buildings, which comprise the company’s new home, and 54 performers portray 28 characters.
We are instructed to don beaked masks before entering a cavernous maze of rooms, corridors and floors. Walking whichever way we choose, we come across performers who dance in what seem like ritualistic ways; others cry, writhe, or hold their heads in their hands, all playing Trojans mourning their losses, it seems.
The beaked masks give us a look of predation and as we crowd around the actors we appear like rampaging voyeurs in the ruins of this city. The signs of flight – unfinished jigsaws, washing left to dry, feasts laid out – are poignant. We touch these abandoned things as we go by.
The immense space and its immersive elements are impressive – we really feel as if we are in a bombed-out city, travelling through its grime and crumbling grandeur. Even the bar is immersive, with its own Cabaret-style decadent and risque performances, with magnificent singing by Kimberly Nichole.
The set, designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns with attention to the smallest detail, has an intimate filmic beauty. The doom-laden sound design by Stephen Dobbie is a permanent accompaniment, occasionally building to adrenalised trance music. There is a phenomenal lighting design by F9, Ben Donoghue and Barrett (from shadow-play to showers of celestial light) and stylishly modern gothic costumes by David Israel Reynoso (black bodysuits and basques, gold jewellery and feather boas).
All these elements evoke atmosphere and give this show its “wow” factor. But it comes to feel like an elaborate on-site installation rather than an enveloping human drama. The stagecraft is the main event.
Directed by Barrett and Maxine Doyle, The Burnt City is an epic set-up without enough epic storytelling. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’s Hecuba are the source texts but where ancient Greek tragedy classically relies on words and songs, this production employs mime, movement and dance. A few actors speak but their words are barely audible. They are all intense, agile performers, especially Sarah Dowling’s Hecuba and Jordan Ajadi’s Polymestor, who she blinds in a dance that looks like a techno rave. This scene is repeated over the course of the performance, as if on a hellish loop.
There are slow scenes of pained choreography by Doyle: a man sits in a greenhouse holding a plant; tarpaulin is laid out on which to drag a dead body away; tormented mortals appear to be comforted by Gods. These conjure the despairing aftermath of battle but feel like snatches of moments, their stories sometimes arcane. Set against the dramatic impact of the music and lighting, they look like the teasing excerpts of a movie trailer – not the movie itself.
There is an increasingly exhausting feeling in this three-hour show of moving around the circuit of rooms in search of more performers, more story. Some of the longer and more dynamic scenes, when they come, are enthralling. In the most powerful moment a group of men move towards a desperate huddle of Trojan women, one of whom is strung up, half-naked and bloodied. The terror and tragedy – of female sacrifice and male violation – pervades the vast room, which looks like a gladiator’s ring. It could be a scene from Pat Barker’s magnificent and horrifying The Silence of the Girls, though it uses no words. Its emotional power lands like a punch and shows us that this company can orchestrate fantastically potent human theatre.
So it is frustrating that they do not build more of it into the production. That said, those who are satisfied with spectacle above story will enjoy this meticulously crafted show. Those of us who come for meaty drama and narrative momentum may leave hungry.