Punchdrunk to stage epic ‘future noir’ drama in old London arms factory

Dystopian Trojan war play The Burnt City at site of Royal Arsenal will be company’s costliest and most ambitious immersive piece

The immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, celebrated for creating labyrinthine adventures in atmospheric locations, is to undertake its costliest and most ambitious project to date with a “future noir” retelling of the fall of Troy.

The Burnt City will be staged in cavernous buildings at the company’s new headquarters at Woolwich Works, a creative hub in the historic site of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, south-east London. Some 600 theatregoers at a time will be given free rein to walk around the contrasting ancient worlds of Troy and Mycenae, each given a dystopian sci-fi spin, where they will encounter gods, monsters and perhaps a secret passageway or two over a three-hour evening.

The show has been 10 years in the making, its co-directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle told the Guardian on a tour of a Grade II-listed former munitions factory that will soon house the world of Troy. The Burnt City will begin as what seems like a “swish museum tour”, said Barrett, before visitors are plunged into a neon-lit Troy that has been remodelled under the influence of Fritz Lang’s classic silent film Metropolis.

Audiences may choose to sip a potion inspired by the ancient Greek tipple kykeon before exploring alleys, palaces, a hotel and an opera house, all of which will be built over the next six months. Mycenae, with a somewhat sparser aesthetic, will be created in an adjacent building on a similar scale. A cast of around three dozen will perform across the two worlds. “The scale of this project is epic,” said Doyle.

Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett outside Punchdrunk’s new HQ in Woolwich.
‘We were nomadic for many years’ … Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett outside Punchdrunk’s new HQ in Woolwich, south-east London. Photograph: Julian Abrams

Theatregoers have become accustomed to wearing face coverings and keeping their distance during the pandemic but both have have figured as key ingredients of Punchdrunk experiences for many years. For their last big show, The Drowned Man (2013), audiences wore masks and roamed an old sorting office in Paddington, whose floors were transformed into a Hollywood studio, an eerie desert and other memorable locations designed in stunning detail. The Burnt City will unfold across 100,000 sq ft (9,290 sq metres), giving visitors plenty of space, and this time the masks, which will be designed by Punchdrunk and given to audience members, will be for Covid protection as well as adding to the atmosphere.

The sets, costumes and props will be made at Woolwich Works, whose other resident arts organisations include the Chineke! Orchestra, Luca Silvestrini’s dance-theatre company Protein and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Woolwich Works opens for public performances on 23 September. The Burnt City starts in March, with tickets on sale from Wednesday.

Inside one of the buildings that will host The Burnt City.
Inside one of the buildings that will host The Burnt City. Photograph: Julian Abrams

Barrett and Doyle explored Woolwich 20 years ago when they were scouting locations to house the first Punchdrunk productions but the sheer scale of the buildings surpassed their means. They have since created site-specific shows for different buildings, achieving huge success in Shanghai and New York with the Macbeth-inspired production Sleep No More, but have not had a permanent artistic base as such. “We were nomadic for many years,” said Barrett.

In Woolwich, Punchdrunk intends to provide more than 100 jobs for the local community, including creative and operational roles, and to collaborate with local artists.

Eighteen months after arts venues were first closed because of Covid, theatres are continuing to navigate the risks of staging performances during a pandemic. Punchdrunk, which received a loan of £4m from the government’s culture recovery fund, has partnered with Porsche to present The Burnt City. The company has also learned lessons from closing and then reopening Sleep No More in Shanghai, where it is now playing to full capacity audiences once more.

The nature of the company’s work has always made it more malleable than staging traditional plays, said Barrett, who added that although it felt “hairy” to be embarking on a new production it was exhilarating nevertheless.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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