The Burnt City at One Cartridge Place
Punchdrunk are pioneers of immersive entertainment. At one of their shows, audience members are free to roam around a space and curate their own experience. The company has had international success, won awards and garnered rave reviews – but, for this reviewer, The Burnt City is by and large a big-budget gimmick.
Attendees begin in a faux-museum exhibition about Greek Mythology and are gradually led inside a huge warehouse of darkness, loud music and maze-like rooms. Performers run in and out, performing choreography inspired by Greek myths. The set design is very detailed – in one space you enter a greenhouse with plant pots holding different textures of soil or sand, with little cups and spoons. Other rooms have huge installations made of wood or metal, and lighting varies between massive spotlights and little fairy lights. It is an impressive feat of design and a lot of thought has gone into the aesthetics, but apart from touching or sometimes sitting on the set, there is not much you can do except look. The immersion is only partially successful – the audience cannot interact with or affect the world around them very much.
Overall, the experience is long and intense. It makes you feel constantly on edge and it doesn’t let up, as though the building is clenching for three hours without breathing. It feels as though you are in hell and you are not sure what you are doing there, which might be fun for some people but is very unpleasant for many. The lights often flip between extremes of unbearable brightness, strobing or darkness, which makes your hairs stand on end and gives an unsettling sense that someone is about to jump up behind you. Throughout the three-hour production, there is uncomfortably loud and unnerving horror-film-style music. At the beginning of the show, a guide explains that if you need a break, you can go out to the bar, but the bar is just as loud and dark. An experience like this would do well to have a quieter, calmer break space.
Having said that, the bar brings some comic relief. Cabaret performers and drag queens sing, make jokes and invite the audience to interact with them. Here, despite the noise, there is a sense of humour and play which is missing from the main space. Within the central show, the performances are impressive, but the choreography is too literal – it purely acts out moments of Greek mythology with an emotional intensity that grips too hard without release and puts the performers in unpleasant and vulnerable situations.
In short, the show can be described in two words: too much. The music, lights, set and choreography all feel busy and uncomfortable. Intense art needs comic relief and moments of calm to breathe. In The Burnt City, audiences feel stifled inside an inescapable labyrinth, and the experience is overwhelming and ultimately meaningless.
The Burnt City is at One Cartridge Place until 4th August 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.