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Review: THE BURNT CITY, One Cartridge Place

Punchdrunk returns to London after eight years with a thrilling adaptation of Greek tragedies.

Review: THE BURNT CITY, One Cartridge Place

Review: THE BURNT CITY, One Cartridge Place The Trojan War is the stuff of countless myths and later retellings. But probably none of them could make you get physically lost in the labyrinthine worlds of Hecuba's Troy and Agamemnon's Mycenae. For that, you would need to head to One Cartridge Place, where the renowned immersive theatre company Punchdrunk has opened the gates to The Burnt City, marking their long-awaited return to London after an eight-year hiatus.

Following their radical adaptations of Shakespeare, Hitchcock, and Georg Büchner, the team behind such hits as Sleep No More and The Drowned Man now takes us deep into one of the foundational chapters of Greek mythology. Directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle pick up the knotty yarn of Greek tragedies, in particular Aeschylus's Agamemnon (the first part of his Oresteia) and Euripides's Hecuba, and weave out of it a thrilling world of ecstasy and terror.

Despite the novel subject matter, the company's signature style remains intact: the show takes place in Punchdrunk's new building in Woolwich, where audience members are asked to wear plastic masks and invited to roam across numerous rooms over the course of three hours. As multiple plotlines unfold simultaneously, we are free to do pretty much anything - closely follow the characters from one space to another, explore the hidden corners of the set, handle the props, or take a breather at the bar.

And there are choices to make left and right, since The Burnt City straddles two distinct settings: on the one hand, the stark Mycenae, where the House of Atreus undergo their domestic tragedy on spartan platforms (with the wistful exception of Iphigenia's all-too-realistic bedroom); on the other, the opulent Troy, where the styles of different periods and geographies seem to coexist in self-indulgent harmony.

The latter, having the greater share of inner chambers, offers a beguiling, if rather inexplicable, mix of aesthetics: a Parisian café is neighboured by a store called Alighieri's (of Dante?), and Asiatic posters lead us to the hallways of a hotel not unlike the McKittrick. Designed by Felix Barrett, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns, the set clearly evokes the juxtaposition of a multicultural, part-futuristic Troy with an augustly conservative Mycenae - a contrast also endorsed by the darkly frenetic lighting design (by FragmentNine, Ben Donoghue, and Felix Barrett).

In light of its source texts, The Burnt City is flanked by two major episodes of human sacrifice: Agamemnon's killing of his daughter Iphigenia to summon the winds necessary for the expedition to Troy and, years later, Polyxena's murder in the hands of the victorious Greeks to appease Achilles's spirit. Each is realized with an operatic sense of heart-wrenching gravity, the loss of innocent lives captured in slow motion and turned into disturbing spectacles.

The main beats of both plays are rendered as distinct episodes that recur three times over a single evening. Though there are certain deviations and omissions from the dramas, familiarity with their plots slowly makes legible the show's intricate narrative logic (the credit for which should also go to dramaturg Emma Cole).

Indeed, the framing device of a museum exhibit about Troy's archaeological remains seems to be there mostly to inform us about the contours of the corresponding Greek myths: we enter the cavernous building through rooms that are meant to be displays from an exhibit (complete with an audio guide), but get derailed in our trip by a history that appears to have come alive. And if, in at least two of the three loops, one literally follows in the footsteps of Agamemnon (Robert McNeill) and Hecuba (Sarah Dowling), their intersecting stories become neatly navigable.

Given the vastness of Punchdrunk's new building, not to mention the vastness of Greek mythology itself, it is surprising how relatively contained The Burnt City keeps its narrative world. For instance, some of the major characters closely associated with these myths - such as Elektra, Orestes, and Achilles - are either absent or barely featured, and none of the Greek gods and goddesses receives the spotlight.

But such exclusions are ultimately to the advantage of The Burnt City, which makes most of the few episodes it carefully lays on its operating table. Backed by Stephen Dobbie's vigorously ambient sound design, the show's set pieces are poignantly prolonged so that their latent energies can be unleashed and their tragic tenor maximized. Agamemnon's homecoming, for which he is made to wear an enormous crimson robe, and his water-soaked murder by Clytemnestra (Emily Terndrup) and Aegisthus (Paul Zivkovich) are among such highlights where a complexly expressive choreography finds new shades in these iconic scenes.

As in Punchdrunk's previous work, the 49-person ensemble's almost exclusively nonverbal performances (choreographed by Maxine Doyle) are always intriguing: a single turn of the face or a twitch of the finger is sufficient to evoke a range of emotive meanings, all the while establishing narrative links. The performers' contorting, agile bodies alternately carry out kinaesthetic rituals of bloodthirst, desire, and grief. They confront each other like feral animals, for example, undulating or hurtling themselves in sync with their opponents.

Hecuba's near-delirious mourning of her murdered children and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus's orgiastic wrestling with a drugged Agamemnon are especially striking instances of the choreography's psychological acumen. Elsewhere, differently stylized dances elicit attention: the captive Cassandra's (Pin Chieh Chen) obligatory cavorting for Agamemnon and the Trojans' scheming techno performance for an entranced Polymestor (Cameron Bernard Jones) are two such scenes where choreographic muscles are flexed in unanticipated registers.

The evening's grand finale plunges us into the depths of the Underworld: a haunting death parade, almost out of a Renaissance painting and featuring many of the performers, brings to a crescendo the atavistic rhythms of the prior episodes, melting them in the same pot to brew something new. Even as this conclusion embodies the catharsis of Greek tragedies, it also borrows a note or two from Dante's Inferno, sculpting its dead souls in chilling tableaus of communal despair.

The cyclical nature of violence - whether military or filial, sacrificial or vindictive - is made compellingly clear not only in these final moments, but also throughout the entire performance, as the recurring loops create a vortex where beginnings and endings bleed into each other. For the show to go on, the cycle of violence has to start again and again.

Stripped off conventional references to war, The Burnt City is much more interested in the social consequences of the mythical conflict than with the experience of warfare itself. It's all about the intimate ramifications here, those within a household, a relationship, even a psyche. Surprisingly - considering the title - we also don't see any substantial trace of a devastated Troy: the Troy that we see is instead one of dimmed, rather than burnt-out, grandeur. Perhaps this is something of a missed opportunity, given the scale of the undertaking: a glimpse into the war's broader devastations, both then and now, would have added a welcome layer to the piece.

Rather than charting much new ground, Punchdrunk seems to borrow here from its tried-and-tested formulas, running through them new stories and characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially because the result continues to be, for the most part, stunning. That The Burnt City may ultimately fail to strike devout followers of Punchdrunk as a major advance for the company is much less about the work itself than the high expectations that have come to surround it. Still, that shouldn't detract from the many, many virtues of this impressive production: teeming with moments that burn themselves into the mind, it is an exquisite nightmare you'll be reluctant to wake from.

The Burnt City at One Cartridge Place until 4 December

Photo credit: Julian Abrams



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