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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Toilet Trips In The Burnt City

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Or: some thoughts and reflections on my first time at a Punchdrunk show.

This blog is unusually indebted to those people I discussed the subject with; thanks to B, M, N, O, and Z. It also originally had a snappier title less friendly to search engine systems, which was not 'Taking A Sit In The Burnt City.'

I am an immersive interactive performance-maker. I have had people telling me of Punchdrunk, how best to watch Punchdrunk, and how their own work responds to Punchdrunk, for more or less a decade.

The only reasons for my not going have been a combination of geography (not living in London), runtime (thus a late finish is not convenient), and cost (even at a steep discount, my ticket for The Burnt City was at the upper end of what I want to pay for a show).

The Burnt City was spectacular. Many other writers have spilt ink on the Punchdrunk model, its failures and successes, and therefore I wasn’t sure about adding to the flood. Not least because I do not review shows on this blog; I just reflect on things I’ve seen, on occasion.

What reflection could I possibly offer that was not old hat, well-trodden ground?

The thought came, as it often does, on the toilet. Some sort of instinct that here, there was some sort of thread out the labyrinth.

About The Burnt City

The Burnt City is an immersive piece across two warehouses depicting various stories from Greek mythology, particularly around the Fall of Troy and the Hades & Persephone myth, while also sort of functioning as a recreation of certain cult rituals. On a usual night, there are three ‘loops’ (where performers present their scenes again), though due to approaching the upper end of capacity, there were only two on the night I went.

Most of it is told through dance and movement, with some dialogue on occasion. The design is spectacular, split between the decaying shops of Troy and the warzone of Mycenae. The set is filled with little details, and it really does feel like wandering through another world.

Purely as a visual spectacle, and as an achievement in precise timing as different actors arrive at their scene/dance at exactly the right moment from different start points, it is extraordinary. Getting people to walk down a corridor against a wind machine was very clever.

Like Shakespeare, Punchdrunk’s work is difficult to find comparisons for. A Punchdrunk show is its own form.

I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it, spoken about it with every person I’ve talked to since then, and want to set some thoughts down.


Some Basic Whinging

The Punchdrunk mask is a legendary piece of kit; it transforms an audience into an ominous, semi-blank backdrop to the shows. However, it cut off my peripheral vision, and I have rarely bumped and been bumped so often moving between spaces, nor so often tripped on steps, boxes, and so on. I also use a common optical intervention known as ‘glasses’, and though I put in contact lenses for the evening, and read that I could have worn glasses under my mask, I would have preferred an option that didn’t risk scratching the lenses of a quite expensive essential item or my eyes struggling with an unusual lens-position.

Yes, I understand why the show requires phones to be off. Since it’s a paid cloakroom, you can instead put your phone in a pouch that is sealed for the duration of the show. It might be a generational thing, but I suddenly noticed how much having my phone on me is a source of comfort - a feeling that did fade - but more specifically, a source of time. I didn’t know how long I’d been in the show. That was sort of fine, and certainly part of the experience. But it also meant that I didn’t know how close we were to the end, in contrast to the watch-wearers.

Amid the details of the set were many bits of paper with interesting details about the world. In the low, flickering light, these were almost impossible to read. Which was a shame, because I’d often been told about the joys of going through a Punchdrunk set and picking up little details.

This may also be why I was a bit disappointed to be told “don’t touch anything” as I was briefed on rules of behaviour for the space. I have since been told that the instruction should have been “don’t take anything away from where you found it” or similar, and it would have been acceptable for me to pick up a piece of paper, move it to a stable light, and put it back.

Alas, I’m only going once.

Right now, you may be feeling a bit lost as I flick things onto the wall to see how they stick. So let me introduce the point at which I started to understand my own thoughts on the show.

From The Toilet To The Show

I had been advised by a friend that I should spend the first loop of the show getting to know the space, exploring the design.

This was good advice; it meant, among other things, that I discovered Mycenae was… there, which was not obvious at first. But I felt a huge sense of relief on discovering the toilet there, having not had the opportunity for relief after rather a long day.

The toilet was off-show. Other than a blue tinge to the lights, it was a normal, functional toilet. Where I did normal, functional things.

It was solid. It was clear what it was. I did not, at any point, worry that I was missing out on some secret special section, if only I knew where to look.

I did worry, both in the Mycenae toilet and the Troy toilet, that I was missing out on the show, because there was no break in it. I worried that the characters I was following would move away, and I would lose them as I did my necessary business. The show is three hours long.

The nature of my work that day had involved a lot of walking. I could have chosen to sit down, but then I would have missed out on most of the show on my one visit. The show is three hours long.

I did not feel lost in the toilet. I did in the rest of the show, for most of the time.

Lost In The City

I felt lost. I was fortunate to have had colleagues and friends tell me to ‘pick a performer you’re interested in and follow them’. I was sorry to find that in the crowds, I often got separated from said performer as hordes of audience-followers moved at cross purposes through the space, so I ended up dotting between different storylines.

I felt lost. The audience’s position in the world was one of passive observership, ghosts in the underworld or the observing Fates more than participants. There was a moment Persephone threw a key onto a chequerboard. I’m told, if you’d followed the key, that is a very special moment. I’m told that one performer I followed was Euridice, and she had a beautiful moment in [spoilers]. But I did not see it, because I was buffeted away.

I felt lost. I’ve read Graves’ mythology in its entirety, the Illiad, Odyssey, and Aneid, a fair chunk of Sophocles and Euripides, various adaptations, and done an A Level in Classical Civilisations (Classics, for people at schools that don’t teach Latin or Greek). Yet afterwards, when I was talking to friends who’d seen the show, I discovered ‘oh, he was Agamemnon, not another Greek warlord; that was Iphigenia; alright, that sort of makes sense now.’ Perhaps it’s because I don’t ‘read’ dance as well as theatre.

Is it important? I’m not sure. The experience became one of being lost. But the show seemed to think it was important I knew the core mythological beats, because it told me about them as I walked in. Thus my feeling lost in the story of the show, even where I did manage to watch a plotline for some time, bothers me.

It bothers me because I felt lost. Not in the fun way of a maze or labyrinth, able to grasp the puzzle by which I am lost. Nor in the way of a dream, where each odd element makes a sort of non-logical sense.

Lost in the sense of unwanted.

Unwanted In The City

In opera, most people understand that the form has its own language. A great deal of work has been done, and continues to be done, to ensure that audiences have what they need to comprehend that language, from surtitles to synopses to pre-performance talks and resources.

Some people working in opera think all of that gets in the way of engagement with the raw, unmediated substance of the work.

The Burnt City felt like that.

I walked in, and nobody offered to help me.

The show promises, offers, implores you to ‘find your own fate’. It’s a cool concept, one I’ve got a lot of time for.

But for me, that probably doesn’t mean ‘wander around feeling lost’. It doesn’t mean ‘you’re going to spend the first loop of the show working out geography, the second loop working out how to watch the show in a way that feels coherent, and there’s not going to be a third cycle tonight even though you’ve paid an amount that normally allows you to see three sets of scenes in a night.’

Just as I got to learn the language of the show, it was over.

I’d have loved to walk in and be given a clear, obvious storyline to follow as a basic option - or, indeed, be told that that’s more or less what was expected of me, picking my own line(s).

I picked it up because I’d been told, and because I saw mobs of confident, masked, fellow-audience members following each performer like ominous ducklings.

Unfortunately, I’ll not be seeing the show again to find out why that key was special. I didn’t know that I could follow the key. It made me feel unwanted, except in the toilet.

Outside The Toilet

I’ve got a suspicion that the reason for the lack of guidance is a belief and artistic interest in fate and randomness.

It’s a very exciting belief. I strongly suspect that, in another show, I’d have loved it.

Right now I feel like I’ve encountered Shakespeare for the first time by seeing a competent version of Henry IV, Part 2. It’s not a bad show, it’s not a bad production, and I can absolutely see how the format could be extraordinary.

But in isolation, I didn’t understand the piece, though it used the format adequately.

The thing about fate and randomness in audience experience, to my mind, is that you’d need every possible fate to be extraordinary, or at least good. It’s why every bit of the design is made into something special and detailed to explore, I suspect; it might be where someone touches onto a moment of wonder. Touching onto a storyline, very briefly, is a very real possibility in this show, and if it is not clear, it makes me feel lost, rather than like I am finding my own fate.

Seeing that some people are being taken by the hand for one of the legendary one-to-ones is lovely, but inspires a pang of missing out, and not knowing how to get that.

Is it my fate to be seated with some friends afterwards, saying what I’d seen, having them explain what on earth was happening, or what it was supposed to mean?

Some people have described the Punchdrunk model as ‘democratic’. It sort of is.

The Punchdrunk Dream

It was my fate not to comprehend the 27 hours’ worth of content in The Burnt City, or even those portions of it that I saw, because I only saw it once.

Those people I spoke to are among those well-fated people who do know the language of the show.

Who do know how to find the content they want, the fate they want.

Who, above all, have very strong opinions to avoid randomness and chaotic fate, because they don’t enjoy it and don’t think the show works around it. None of them wandered around pulling on doors in hope they’d be unlocked and open. They follow actors, plan routes, and try and get what they want.

They are, in some ways, connoisseurs. As each artist has their own way of making work, each artist has an audience, who often want others to share their joy. The connoisseurs of Punchdrunk have a remarkably consistent way of viewing the work, as a matter of expertise, sharing tips on “oh, that storyline’s a bit boring, avoid that, but if you’re there at that time, you get to see something amazing.” For all that audiences are told not to ask the in-show staff to guide their experiences, the fans have filled that niche anyway.

For what it’s worth: I apparently saw a very ‘rare’ scene near the end by accident.

In that sense, the show is ‘democratic’. Anyone could happen to stumble across that scene, as I did. Anyone could find anything.

But the connoisseurs - that is to say, those who can afford to come multiple times, comprehend, and plan - have much better odds. They come again and again to see all 27 hours; to try and get lucky with the one-to-ones.

It’s the American Dream of democracy - anyone’s got a chance, but spending more money really helps boost your odds.

For the connoisseurs, that’s great. But for me, relying on sage scholars of the show to interpret what I’d seen, reinforced my sense that I’d been lost. I had seen something beautiful I had not understood.

I enjoyed much of that experience, but so many things left me feeling lost that they overwhelmed my joy to leave me feeling like I wasn’t wanted.

And I cannot afford to come back again to comprehend it as the scholars do.

Sublime Completionism

This is an unusual feature of a Punchdrunk show. There is no authoritative audience experience; all routes are theoretically acceptable (while in practice, some create better experiences, and it’s a mix of luck and knowledge that decides whether you get an £100-value night, or a night of being jostled in a crowd you could get for free on a crowded street). It’s not like an opera or play, where no matter where you sit (sightlines and acoustics permitting) you see all of the work.

In theory, it challenges the millennial urge towards completionism. You cannot catch ‘em all.

Instead, you must enjoy what you see, and try to form it into as much of a whole as you can as it rhymes and echoes oddly with itself. Which can be sublime.

I suspect the creators of The Burnt City are aware of those Punchdrunk audiences who come back again and again. Because it is possible to catch ‘em all, if you spend enough money.

This leads to many of the strange tensions in my experience. Why make a show that’s easy to navigate straight away (a signpost to Mycenae, for example, would have been glorious) when you’re also making it for someone who can come back, with knowledge of Mycenae?

Those are two separate goals, both of which were reached for, and one of which was achieved. One calls for richness across the experience: every moment should be exquisite, because for one audience member, that might be their special moment. They’re only coming once. You come back to see Macbeth because you discover new richness in the lines.

The other replaces depth with quantity. Keep coming back, because it improves your odds of finding a rare Pokemon one-to-one. You come to see it because you discover new content.

Rare does not mean special. Without context to know that the special scene I saw was coveted, I’ll admit that I found it… underwhelming.

What’s It About?

Much of the above is because, once I’d found out how to navigate the show, I wasn’t sure what it was about.

War is bad? Society dissolving? Love and loss? Fate itself? All are possible, and possibly all were there, and possibly I’m looking for too much philosophical content in a dance-led project.

It was a gorgeous spectacle that ran through my consciousness like water through rocks, not comprehended.

Something odd happened with the audience’s bodies though. There’s a wedding scene that features vibrant jazz, watched by a crowd of audience members. As the cast whirl and dance, not a foot taps, nor a body jiggled (except one person, as far as I saw).

That music wanted to be danced to; it was the song of jazz bars and speakeasies. I did a couple of jolly steps when I was not seen. But to judge from the audience, the show by that point had told us not to dance.

Contrast that with the bar. In the bar was the only point I found the solidity I craved in the toilet. There, it was clear what the rules were, characters got introduced, there was some sort of story. The band was great, and the performer playing Orpheus had a heck of a cover of Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This. I didn’t stay long - indeed, I only knew that there was a whole other show there because a colleague had told me beforehand - but there was something of what I missed in all of that.

Defending The Burnt City, you could say that this counters all my sense of lost-ness; that I found my fate there. But given that the real promise of the show was of entering the world beyond the bar, I’m really not so sure.

It was exquisite. But amid the rough edges practically, I felt lost as an audience member, not wanted enough to be given a clear guide. My fate was to watch a show that is probably much better on the fourth or fifth time, and consequently to spend large chunks of it on bits of fate that connoisseurs, at least, choose to avoid, and that I lacked context to comprehend.

Punchdrunk shows have their own language; to some extent the above boils down to someone coming to an opera and complaining about Mozart’s odd conventions.

But I suspect I’ve seen how those conventions could work for everyone. I reckon I’d love another Punchdrunk show, and definitely want to go to one.

For I hope that there, I will find solidity as well as the toilet.

A picture of a mask, half white and half black, laid over a branching diagram made of arrows.
Not a Punchdrunk mask.

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