Our August Cog Night was an immersive experience, hosted by masters of their art, Punchdrunk. Michael gives his thoughts on The Burnt City.
Soon it will be over. There’s just a few weeks left of Punchdrunk’s spectacular historical drama, The Burnt City.
I’d been before. Months ago. I booked when tickets first went on sale because I’m such a fan boy of the work of this amazing company.
So I was excited when a ticket offer (through TodayTix) meant it felt like an achievable price for a Cog Night in the final weeks of the show.
In my rush to take advantage of the offer, I booked the wrong night but that’s a different story for another time.
From the Cog studio nine of us were able to jump on a train that took us almost to the door of the Woolwich Arsenal building where Punchdrunk have taken up temporary residence.
That felt like a history lesson in itself. My grandad had worked in the factories that occupied that vast site during the early 20th Century, he lived in the factory housing in Cordite street, named after the detonation material developed and packed into bullets and bombs in those buildings.
So it somehow felt appropriate that those vast military warehouses now staged re-enactments of death and destruction, even if the setting was more specifically in ancient Troy and Greece.
I’m pretty sure my often reactionary grandad would have hated the tattooed micro-brewery crowd that now populate the area. I know he would have ridiculed the idea of an almost wordless three-hour immersion into an environment populated by other worldly ultra-human dancers, acrobatic performers and queer cabaret.
We gathered at the entrance to the ‘show’ in Cartridge Place (yes, all the street names relate to armaments) and we were ushered in to the bar and given a playing card. I think the idea was that we’d be called by our numbers so that they could control numbers whilst we had a more comfortable experience than queuing outside (and of course they could sell some drinks while we waited).
But we were quite late entrants and were quickly ushered through.
As with all Punchdrunk shows we were told there was no talking and were obliged to wear their light plastic face masks. And, as with other shows I found mine very awkward and uncomfortable over my glasses.
The mask made me feel vulnerable and detached. Although we were in the action, the eyeholes created a frame like the darkened edges of the pre-cog memories in Minority Report.
At first I was just wandering around an empty space. I walked between rooms, through a town square, into bars, through a shop and down a long corridor with seemingly endless doors into ever more rooms. The space was dark and the atmosphere brooding with menacing audio pumped through the space. I was one of dozens, probably hundreds of masked voyeurs, passing each other, searching, confused by the emptiness of this seemingly abandoned city-scape.
And then we started to spot them. The unmasked performers. A man crouched in a grotty greenhouse, a woman tidying her empty bar, a uniformed official writing at a desk.
As I walked between rooms I was getting vignettes of stories. Occasionally I’d follow a single performer until I found myself and maybe 20 others watching a woman undress. What am I doing? Is this entertainment?
Into the town square and there’s a face-off between a woman and a soldier, a leader in a trench coat. They dance, they fight and he takes her treasure and her life… she is strung from a rope, dripping with blood. Is this entertainment?
I followed the soldier and his entourage, through the back streets and corridors to an entirely new building and a very different atmosphere.
The new space was a vast, open warehouse, with a grand staircase up to huge runway length table. On the ground floor, the open space was punctuated by steel girders, welded into anti-tank devices reminiscent of the streets of Kyiv as they readied for the Russian invasion.
I kind of followed a storyline of a marriage, a betrayal, a resurrection or two, and a lot of nudity, blood and death.
I’ve seen people refer to the show as cinematic but I’m not sure that’s true. It was more like I was watching the trailers – the best bits of a hugely atmospheric epic.
The sound was incredible, I’ve no idea how they coordinated it all. Perhaps that was cinematic, or Netflix noir-ic. An unsettling bed of ambient waves went almost unnoticed but built into peaks and crescendos at the perfect moments to match the action. At one point they morphed into Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing, as a wedding party jumped on and flapped their way along the table until.. bang, a confetti cannon exploded above us and the mood shifted yet again.
The lighting was mind-bogglingly impressive. In what felt like almost total blackness we were still able to navigate our way. Subtle patches grew and intensified to signal our way or draw our attention. And light emerged from nowhere to backlight protagonists and turn slow-mo vignettes into epic, poetic, tear-jerking moments of emotion.
And the performers… they are almost unbelievable in their physicality, their frailty and strength. Through Maxine Doyle’s choreography they conjure shapes, writhe and entwine, they hang from on high and crumple into heaps.
Were there times when I felt stupid because I didn’t understand the plot or follow the names of the Greek Gods, myths and legends? Yes there definitely were.
Were there times when I felt I was missing out on something great in another room. Yes there were.
Did those things matter? A little bit.
Would I go again? Absolutely. I loved it as I have loved my other Punchdrunk experiences, including the under-rated TV show (and all day live-broadcast), The Third Day.
I can’t imagine how anyone can fail to appreciate and admire the full-throated commitment required to produce a project like this. Well, maybe I can imagine my grandad not being terribly engaged but I’m sure that even he would have a grudging respect for the scale of the undertaking.