Punchdrunk have earned themselves a reputation as something of a gold-standard in the world of immersive theatre, and if The Burnt City is anything to go by, that’s deserved. We’ve covered a few immersive experiences over the years and they’ve often felt a little underwhelming – while we’ve yet to encounter any disasters, they can sometimes feel like there’s not enough to see or do, or that corners have been cut to keep costs down.
These are not concerns when it comes to The Burnt City. Spanning a vast warehouse in Woolwich, this epic experience is themed around the Trojan war, with two key areas to explore: one representing Greece, the other Troy. We enter through a bar – which remains open the whole time, for those who want to take a break from the three-hour experience and enjoy a drink and some cabaret – and after a short introduction through a miniature museum, we enter our first arena.
There genuinely is a ‘wow’ moment on arriving at this first space – immersive theatre can often feel somewhat linear and scripted, but that’s not the case here at all. There was a real sense of excitement when we realised we had an actual playground to explore. There’s so much to see and do – there is always at least one story unfolding in each space, and usually more than one at any given time – and there’s also enjoyment to be derived simply from exploring the rooms, which are packed full of carefully considered details.
For everything this show gets right, we did still have a couple of minor issues. While all the performances are aesthetically pleasing, they’re largely style over substance. A handful of set-pieces genuinely impress, but for the most part they’re ‘nice to watch’ as opposed to particularly exciting or compelling. The little snippets of story we do see require a reasonable working knowledge of Greek tragedy – those without that may struggle to understand who these characters are, or their motives.
So it may not be perfect, but The Burnt City really does get the important elements right. The whole experience – from arrival, through to the curated introduction, wearing Punchdrunk’s signature masks, exploring the space, enjoying the spectacle of the finale and ending up back at the bar – it all works well as a package. It does put the emphasis on the aesthetics, and some may leave wanting a bit more in the way of narrative content, but it remains an impressive feat – if you’re a fan of immersive theatre experiences, you’ll love this.
GAY TIMES gives The Burnt City – 4/5
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