The Theater at War
LONDON — On a recent trip to this city I went to war. Not literally; I’m no soldier. But in Punchdrunk’s latest immersive show, “The Burnt City,” audience members are transported to the Trojan War battlefields.
In dramatizing a story rife with murders, enslavement and rape, the production essentially becomes a monstrous playground in which visitors wander among the war atrocities.
The staging of violence has always given me pause, because it can quickly become gratuitous, even triggering to audience members. It’s a tough subject to navigate, as some recent theatrical productions have proved. Take, for example, the empty gore of Sam Gold’s “Macbeth” on Broadway last season, with its severed limbs and gushing blood, which did nothing to elevate or elucidate the production. Yet brutal war imagery seemed to serve a grander purpose in Yaël Farber’s appealingly brooding London production of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” which I saw via a livestream last fall.
Though the lengthy, gut-wrenching staging of the murder of Lady Macduff and her children (all played by Black actors) felt a bit too ruthless in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” the implication was how women, children and people of color can too often become casualties of conflicts that don’t even involve them. Here, the Macbeths’ machinations were placed in context: No longer is their ascension just about the inevitability of fate, but how the greed of a privileged few can destroy the lives of a marginalized many.
This summer, Robert Icke’s robust and captivating “Oresteia” at the Park Avenue Armory also told a story involving the Trojan War. The nearly-four-hour play, an expansive adaptation of Aeschylus’ trilogy, was comparatively light on violence despite it being a tale of sacrifice and revenge.
There’s blood, but most of the violence is expressed through implication and foreshadowing: the way Agamemnon snaps at his daughter Iphigenia and towers over her menacingly as he debates whether to sacrifice her life for the war; the focus on Agamemnon’s constant bathing, presaging his murder in the bath. The show was more interested in the psychology of its characters and how a change in perspective can alter the way a story is received, especially a tragedy, rather than in reveling in senseless bloodshed.
These fictional stories exemplify how much of our historical accounts and reporting of wars are subject to biases, skewed perspectives and selective memories. The optics of war, like theater, are carefully crafted, from the “war to end all wars” slogan during World War I to the War on Terror drumbeat after Sept. 11, and now the David-and-Goliath narrative of the Russia-Ukraine war.
In “The Burnt City,” the chaos of war meets the curated artifice of performance. But even in its attempts to emphasize the inhumanity of war, the production ultimately offers war as solely entertainment. Despite or perhaps because of its failures, this production mirrors an unfortunate truth about war: that the stories we tell of ravaged cities and bloody battlefields reflect a limited, often problematic, view of conflicts and those affected by them.
In “The Burnt City,” directed by Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle (who worked with a scholar of classical theater), audience members are encouraged to explore the dark rooms and hallways of a former arsenal that is fittingly transformed into the desolate Mycenae, the carnivalesque Troy and the soldiers’ barracks where such legendary warriors like Achilles stop to rest.
Like Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More,” “The Burnt City” is a nearly wordless performance, interspersed with interpretive dance and props in meticulously designed rooms. Also like “Sleep No More,” audiences, who wear plastic masks inspired by the masks worn in classic Greek theater, may choose to follow individual characters or wander throughout the warehouses.
There’s something perverse about this, I thought when I found Achilles and Patroclus preparing for battle a few minutes in. The two, dressed in military uniforms, were dance-fighting — a mix of brute force and a sensual interplay of limbs — in a grand courtyard.
I began to feel uneasy as I followed them to their soldiers’ quarters, peeking through a window in the tiny wooden structure while they laughed and washed up. At best, I felt like a war tourist, searching for where the juiciest action would happen, and at worst I felt complicit, tagging along with the actors portraying the Greeks, who drive the conflict — and the story forward — rather than the ones playing the Trojans, like Hecuba and her daughters, who are the unfortunate victims.
As the muddled and disquieting production went on, I started to skip out early during several gruesome death scenes, moving to find the next part of the story. I watched Agamemnon’s murder, a lengthy threesome between him, his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, that led to his stabbing in the shower; but while his naked body fell to the floor, I made my way through the crowd, trying to remember what came next. Dispassionately, I wondered if I should find Achilles or someone else for the conclusion.
Even the bloodiest scenes paired grace with horror. In one room I gathered with a group of people in a circle — Agamemnon and his soldiers encounter the Trojan women, Hecuba in front, moving in an elegant choreography of sweeping arm motions and rhythmic swaying. Periodically Hecuba violently drums on her chest — a classical gesture of mourning. Her daughter Polyxena is stripped and killed in front of Agamemnon, and soldiers string her up by her feet. She swings, mostly naked, with blood smeared on her chest, in the center of the room. The sight is horrifying, but much of the onlookers, myself included, quickly dispersed after Agamemnon left the room.
“The Burnt City” doesn’t seem to be taking much of a stand on the subject of violence against women, especially to an audience of gawkers. Part of the issue is the lack of dialogue. There isn’t a moment when the female characters can speak up, and be heard.
With disgust, I made my way through the warehouses, and caught myself following the male characters more than the women, who often seemed more ornamental than anything — tragic objects to look at not engage with. I wondered, did “Burnt City” simply reinforce an old narrative rather than present a new one?
Roughly 90 minutes into the show, which can stretch as long as three hours, I was exasperated enough to head for the exit. I thought about the abhorrent kind of privilege that allows a person to see only parts of someone else’s war, to be able to look at just the sights that most pique one’s interest.
It occurred to me at some point that, at the very least, even when “The Burnt City” is impenetrable, it does mirror war in its untidiness. There’s no one narrative to follow. In Icke’s “Oresteia,” mirroring the violence is never the intention; we encounter the war only through the perspective of the family, more precisely through Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. The production renders the Trojan War more as a metaphor for the emotional and physical conflicts this family undergoes: the Trojan horse, the soldiers and the sacrifices are all shadows we see on their living room walls.
“The Burnt City” makes the war itself the main object of our attention and so is stuck negotiating the savagery of combat with the promise of immersive entertainment. In reality, if a city is burning, it doesn’t become an attraction.