Immersive Theater Is Back, But It’s Hard to Leave Real Life at the Door
A mother prepares her daughter for a doomed wedding. A man raises a golden headdress aloft. Deathly omens shatter a celebration in a town square. These are just a few of the scenes that punctuate The Burnt City, an immersive “promenade” performance in London created by Punchdrunk, the company behind Sleep No More and the HBO Max TV series The Third Day. Audience members explore two darkened buildings, both refitted military arsenals, populated by actors, who move freely through the crowds. The sensory effect is epic and imposing; it’s theater’s promise of escapism taken to the extreme.
The Burnt City is an ambitious retelling of the siege of Troy, set in the parallel worlds of the ancient Greek king Agamemnon and Trojan queen Hecuba. Despite hinging on a decade-long siege, the show does little to conjure the threat of war, focusing instead on domestic tragedy and revenge. Those are resonant themes, but it’s hard to lean into the fantasy: With a real war a few hours’ flight away in Europe and a pandemic that hasn’t completely faded, there’s more than enough tragedy to go around outside the theater.
But never mind those real-world concerns. We’re here to witness the murders of Iphigenia and Polyxenu, princesses of Mycenae and Troy. Audience members’ faces are covered with theatrical masks and their phones are locked away. A liminal trip through a mocked-up museum exhibit guides us from the present day into two parallel Bronze Age worlds. Mycenae is a cavernous, echoing space, while besieged Troy is claustrophobic, with neon-drenched shops, restaurants and people’s homes packed close.
Audience members are anonymous and shrouded in darkness, so a mutual trust between the performers and the audience is crucial. Cast members from Sleep No More told Buzzfeed in 2018 that they’d been sexually assaulted by audience members. The audience is reminded to respect the performers’ personal space, and stewards oversee the action from the sidelines. But even with safety measures in place, there’s an innate element of unpredictability to any live event.
That vulnerability touches the audience as well. After two years of social distancing and increasing reports of antisocial behavior in theaters, it’s unnerving to be surrounded by strangers in blank-faced masks. I felt hands on my back while walking through a corridor at one point, and I emerged from the show with a smear of red on my arm. (The on-site first aid team took it reassuringly seriously, even though it was most likely fake blood.) Neither incident would stop me from going back, but they were pointed reminders that there are real people with real bodies moving through this fantastical space.
Then there’s the pandemic. There are COVID-19 restrictions in place, with testing and masks required for visitors, but spending three hours indoors with a few hundred strangers is a calculated risk. It’s possible to keep your distance most of the time, but I felt crowded when characters’ stories led them into small spaces or converged in large crowd scenes. I also worried about the actors. COVID-19 has hit the arts hard, with actors losing work and funding in the pandemic and shows disrupted by outbreaks and lockdowns. If I wasn’t entirely comfortable dropping in for an afternoon, how must it feel to work here?
Getting this close to performers, who are pushing their bodies to the limits to entertain us while putting their own health at risk, reminds me of the inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Teachers, health care providers, people in the service industries and other essential workers haven’t had the luxury of working from home for much of the past two years. For me, going out to eat or be entertained is a choice; that’s not the case for everyone.
Sorry. Got distracted. We’re supposed to be talking about the show. The Burnt City is nonlinear by design. You can watch events unfold from start to finish, but no one will force you to follow a set path or watch a single story from beginning to end. Every character has a story loop that sends them on a collision course with others. Is it better to follow one character and watch their story unfold, or should you jump from one plot thread to the next and try to see as much as possible? There’s no right answer. If you dodge the big crowds and forge your own path, losing the plot seems almost inevitable. But that might be the point.
It’s no coincidence that Punchdrunk has begun. The company’s work offers the same promise as virtual reality: At its best, it can fool you into believing you’ve been transported to another world. My colleague Bridget Carey recently visited , another immersive world that feels like stepping inside a real-life video game. But while the Starcruiser demands audiences keep one eye on their phones and packs the journey with missions and tasks, Punchdrunk pulls you all the way out of reality. There are no missions to complete and no access to your phone.
If there’s a “game” to The Burnt City, it’s more abstract. The intricacy of the sets carries the tantalizing implication that there must be some underlying sense to everything you’re seeing. Opening drawers reveals documents, letters, postcards and old photos. There are tiny shrines dotted through the shops in Troy, offerings of flowers and locks of hair. Gods and visionaries walk among the human cast, but you may not recognize them in passing. Surely, I kept thinking, if I can be in the right place at the right time, I might find the missing piece of the puzzle. But there are no guarantees. You might still be lost by the time the story reaches its brutal climax.
If you’ve experienced Punchdrunk before, all of this might evoke a sense of déjà vu. Some of this is the company’s signature lighting, sound and choreography techniques — the creative team, helmed by founder Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, is made up of Punchdrunk veterans, building and populating a world with practiced assurance — but there’s an emotional distance from the characters that doesn’t help.
The broad strokes of romance, betrayal and death are all there, but it’s hard to connect with the story on a deeper level. There’s almost no dialogue, and the most powerful moments use dance and sound to show characters physically transformed by grief, rage or desire. But if you catch them in lighter moods, it can feel a bit like. Even worse, if you lose the thread of the narrative, one dreamlike conceptual dance scene can start to blur into another. It feels rude to wander off when a performer is working a kind of slow, rhythmic magic. But there are so many things to see, it’s hard to stay in one place.
Even at its most opaque, The Burnt City is a wonderful way to lose yourself. There’s a voyeuristic pleasure in exploration for its own sake, whether you’re peeking into an empty dressing room or watching a character quietly go about their work. After three hours roaming Punchdrunk’s world, I was convinced I’d only scratched its surface — and there was no question that there was more to understand. I’ll definitely be going back, maybe more than once. But while previous encounters with Punchdrunk swallowed me up and offered an escape from the real world, it’s harder to let go in 2022. The real world just feels too close.
The Burnt City is playing now in London.