Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City - which takes place locally in Woolwich, London - successfully immortalises this timeless epic of the Trojan war with its mesmerising choreography and set design; but, it’s far from a relaxing night out. 

Directors Felix Barret and Maxine Doyle have created a triumph of modern theatre: an epic for the next generation - or, more accurately, they have revitalised an ancient myth and exposed its timelessness. Nonetheless, this is far from conventional theatre. The performance requires you to fully immerse yourself in the narrative: you’ll have to don masks and explore the set, whilst attempting to piece together the plot by stumbling upon different snippets of the plot. 

There’s very little spoken word too - the narrative is conveyed through a mesmerising choreography, which manages to distil the humanity and emotion of each of the characters. In so doing, the choreography is key in making this a rich experience, where spectators can explore the human impact of war. But, unlike conventional theatre, the choreography is only half the story. The set design is key in giving the narrative meaning. 

The performance is split between two warehouses: Troy and Mycenae, preceded by a short exhibition which gives spectators a much needed introduction to the story. Each is an ‘intricate physical world’ (as described by Paul King, who watched the performance in August): Troy is decorated with neon shops and hotels, and seems to have a thriving nightlife scene - very much reminiscent of 1920s Weimar Germany, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, whereas Mycenae is adorned with military-style checkpoints and Czech hedgehogs (and feels much more spacious, emptier than Troy), suggesting a dystopian future. By layering the ancient narrative with 20th Century and futuristic or dystopian themes, Barret and Doyle explore the timelessness of this myth. It’s one that will resonate across the millennia. 

Regardless, it’s the set design that’s the hero of the show. It’s thrilling as a spectator to wander from room to room looking through a character’s belongings, or reading the signs and posters littered through Troy, and trying to use these clues to unravel the plot. There’s a strong water motif in the upstairs area of Troy, for example, with repeated waterfall images (with the water flowing upwards!) and the repeated reference to Elysium (a river in the underworld), could this, for example, be a suggestion that we’re walking through the underworld and we’re witnessing past events play out again, on loop?

This immersive experience is a rich one: it allows you to view all aspects of the production, all of which are steeped in meaning. But, it can be frustrating. You can’t see everything and the dissection of all the performance’s elements can be messy. Working out which character is which, for example, is often hard work. Paul King admitted ‘it can be difficult to identify particular characters and follow their stories because so much is happening at the same time’. The performance, therefore, may seem to leave more questions unanswered than answered, though this is the directors’ aim and actually adds to the joy of the production. The version of the production that spectators see will be a reflection of their own approach to life: for example, some may follow individual characters throughout the production, whilst others may prefer to explore the set. 

The performance, therefore, successfully shines a light on this ancient story. Through immersing spectators in the action and steeping the choreography and set design with meaning, the directors allow the themes of the human impact of war - but also hope and reawakening - from Aesychlus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’s Hecuba (on which the production is based) to resonate with a modern audience. Indeed, the performance has extra poignancy, given Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine - yet again, a nation has invaded another and the impacts of war have been shown in the media. Thus, Barret and Doyle succeed in preserving this timeless, yet ancient, story for a new generation of theatre goers.