For its new account of the Trojan War, the theater company has built a complete and functional city in a series of London warehouses
Since its founding in 2000, Punchdrunk has staged performances everywhere from industrial warehouses to a disused post office to a disused nuclear bunker. His last years, macbeth-inspired Don’t sleep anymore even saw the immersive theater company transform abandoned spaces in New York and Shanghai into a noir-themed 1930s hotel. For its final show, however, Punchdrunk is heading home.
Title The burnt city, the new performance spans two warehouses in Woolwich, south-east London – Punchdrunk’s new permanent home after years on the road. As the show begins, viewers enter a museum of Greek antiquities and emerge in the midst of the Trojan War, a mythical conflict between ancient Greece and the city of Troy, spread across “more than a hundred rooms.”
In a warehouse, the set (although the word “set” sounds like an understatement) is modeled after Mycenae, the colony the Greek king Agamemnon established to launch his assault on Troy. As the frontline of war, the landscape is littered with dystopian checkpoints and anti-tank structures, echoing sci-fi classics such as stalker, but also – in a dark twist of fate – real images emerging from the war in Ukraine. Overlooking this no man’s land, Agamenon’s bedroom, where furniture turns into an altar for his concubine, and a spectacular lighting design (by director Felix Barrett, in collaboration with FragmentNine and Ben Donoghue) communicates missives from the gods.
Across the divide, Troy tells a different story. Despite the conflict outside its walls, the beleaguered city is thriving and spectators are free to pass through clubs, cafes, apartment buildings and a love hotel where every room is steeped in myth (look for the bed on the theme of Aphrodite in the form of a valve). As in Mycenae, the labyrinthine city borrows images from the canon of science fiction, drawing inspiration directly from Fritz Lang’s red light district. Metropolis and the underground culture of Weimar in Germany. “We always love the crackle of electricity that comes from two opposing sources rubbing against each other,” says Barrett.
Likewise, the show’s costumes throw the timeline to the wind. Representing “a kind of dream between past and future”, sculpted breastplates and coats rub shoulders with clothing influenced by Thom Browne, Helmut Newton and the Berlin nightlife of the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. Choreographer and co-director of The burnt city Maxine Doyle also names Alexander McQueen’s “anarchy”. “He’s always kinda sitting in the room with us,” she tells Dazed. “Although there are no real direct references.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Punchdrunk’s productions and the above description didn’t warn you: this is not a traditional theatrical experience. As the actors perform scenes from two ancient plays, Aeschylus Agamemnon (translated by Ted Hughes) and Euripides Hecuba, spectators are free to walk around as they please, open the doors and get on all fours to crawl through the secret passages. If you wanted to, you could spend all the time at the bar “watch duo of gods”.
Below, Dazed talks to Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle about their monumental new project, how to avoid FOMO in the midst of an impossible-to-live-in-entire performance, and why the timeless myths that informed The burnt city feel particularly important today.
How does it feel to be back in London, at Punchdrunk’s new home?
Felix Barret: We have waited for many, many years. It’s been a long, long time since I expected. But it was worth the eight-year wait, because at least now we have a forever home.
Is it true that you looked for a space here when you founded the company?
Felix Barret: Yeah [Laughs]. It was ridiculous. Looking for a space was the first thing we did together, in 2002. Don’t sleep anymore lasted two weeks and on the last night 100 people came to see it, and we couldn’t believe it. And we’re trying to find a space, phoning all the councils, and Greenwich says, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got this amazing space in Woolwich.’ We came to see it and its scale was ridiculous. And so it’s quite amazing and quite humbling that we’re back here 20 years later.
And how long has the idea The burnt city been in the works?
Maxine Doyle: As an idea, it is more than a decade old. Felix had the original concept when we were working in some buildings in Southampton Row.
Felix Barret: We lost them, we lost the space, but there was always the idea of going to two different buildings. As is often the case in site work, the buildings collapsed. So we were at a point where we kicked off the show, we were about to start building, and it fell. I think we thought he might be gone forever. And then, six years ago, we were shown this space and it blew us away. Not only did it amount to two separate buildings, but the ladder was so mythical in its stature that it worked a little better. So even though it was quite deadly, the delay, maybe the gods were looking for us and knew this was the right place.
Maxine Doyle: I guess the blessing of such a big delay is that it really means we got to get deeper into the subject matter, the mythology, the plays. We worked with a brilliant classic as a playwright and as an advisor, and it really allowed us to dig deep and really interrogate a lot of these stories and derive our own meaning from them.
“We’ve thought about every poster on the walls, every letter that’s in a pocket…everything has to have substance or it’s hollow” – Felix Barrett
How did you land on the fall of Troy as a topic to begin with?
Felix Barret: It feels like a land of gods, monsters, and mortals all living as we truly are in our wheelhouse. Also, the shows have become denser and everything you see in the space has meaning, nothing is just superficial. So we need a fairly dense starting point, and the Greeks are the foundation of the theater – almost any story can trace back to the Greeks. And so it was ripe, we knew we wanted to go. Then, upon getting two buildings, you suddenly realize this is the legendary tale of two cities, the battle of Troy and Mycenae. It has always been a passion to use the Greeks, but focusing on the two pieces was all because of the building. It has now proven to be wildly prescient as the situation unfolds in Ukraine.
Maxine Doyle: In fact, watching life unfold before us, in real time, shifted the focus. There is a bit of responsibility, a responsibility for the images we present. It feels very charged and sensitive.
Felix Barret: We always imagined it as a requiem of war, and now it feels urgent as a track. It’s amazing how over the years, as world events have swirled around, it’s all there in the Greek material. Climate disasters, geopolitical battles, those huge, vast power struggles. What’s so good is that the plays speak to the essence of the impact on the family, the heart of humanity.
In terms of modernizing Tory and Mycenae, what did you keep, cut or change for today’s audience?
Felix Barret: We don’t really have to adjust to the resonance of turmoil and conflict, because it is timeless. It is largely the decor of the rooms [that changed]. The plays are literally beat for beat as Euripides or Aeschylus imagined and wrote it, but we reimagined the landscape in which they exist as a kind of parallel future, a kind of imaginary 1920s. It could be in the past, it could be in the future. It’s a fever dream. That’s been one of the fun parts of it, layering a dystopian sci-fi veneer on top, and almost like you’re doing a bronze rub, you determine which elements rise to the top. By placing it in the future, we also decided to remove weapons, arrows and swords.
Maxine Doyle: These are not swords and sandals.
How do you want the audience to approach a Punchdrunk show? Don’t people worry that they missed a secret passage their friend crawled through?
Felix Barret: Yeah. And the truth is that they are missing things. Hopefully if the design is good enough, they haven’t skimmed through it because they couldn’t find it. We don’t want everyone to do everything. Rather, it’s much more about you as an individual, your approach to life. Some people will want to latch onto one of the main protagonists of the plays and follow them and get the main story arc and that’s fantastic. Other people may want to explore and go in search of secret passages and the inhabitants who lurk in the shadows. Other people might just want to go to the bar and watch the gods duet.
Maxine Doyle: I hope some people have no expectation and no idea and really go with the flow. We’re really excited that people want to come and experience this for the first time, question it and hustle it.
Felix Barret: It’s worth saying that you can’t see everything and you’re not supposed to be able to. You will only experience FOMO if you are not living in the moment. We just ask our viewers to be present, and then they will all discover their own moments.
Maxine Doyle: It can be a frustrating, punchdrunk sight. Frustrating and irritating at first, but I think the more time the audience spends in the building, the richer the experience there is. But it won’t necessarily happen to your feet.
“Each member of the audience will have a different reading and – unless they’re holding hands – will actually have a different show” – Felix Barrett
In popular mythology, the fall of Troy is also the rebirth of a civilization. How do you think that resonates in 2022?
Maxine Doyle: I think everything I do is about rebirth actually, in one way or another, somewhere. I think, especially in this piece, we try to find optimism and hope, even in the darkness. A chance for an awakening of some description.
Felix Barret: We’ve always said – and it feels even more prescient now than when it started – that even though it’s two different buildings, two different nations, it’s a spectacle. The idea of a coin being the signifier for it. On the one hand it’s a requiem of war, it’s about grief and the impact of conflict and loss. On the other side of the coin there is a chance for rebirth and a chance for hope and a chance for catharsis, to right past wrongs. I think that’s what we’re hoping for, that this show has both.