At One Cartridge Place

James Butler

Omagbitse Omagbemi and Vinicius Salles in Punchdrunk’s ‘The Burnt City’. Photo © Julian Abrams

The audience of Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City is plunged into a world created in two vast warehouse spaces, one Mycenae and the other Troy, between which play out the events – more or less – of AeschylusAgamemnon and EuripidesHecuba. The performances are mostly wordless, delivered through dance, movement, tableau and spectacular set-piece. The Mycenaean space is vast and cavernous, the Trojan labyrinthine (a dystopian city), both realised in superabundant detail. You could spend a visit just exploring the set, although you shouldn’t. The performances – most of them – repeat in loops of about an hour; each show is made up of two and a half loops, before the big finale. The loops may be a theatrical convenience, to allow the audience to capture more sides to the performance; but they may be more than that, too. There are repetitions upon repetitions in these stories: always a bull’s horns rearing, a violence transmitted, a sacrifice which leads to other sacrifices.

There are people who dislike it, didn’t get it, wanted their story delivered in discrete units, tied off and cauterised: unlike life. And unlike myth. ‘How am I supposed to relate to this character?’ ran one internet complaint. Who said you were supposed to?

Both plays start at the end. Agamemnon is returning from the war that he had to kill his daughter to initiate. Most of Hecuba’s children are dead before the play begins; it starts in ruins and somehow finds something even worse. Two sacrifices mark the points at which the plays should come into contact. Iphigeneia is killed by her father, Agamemnon, to release the winds and allow the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. After that war is done, many years later, the hungry ghost of Achilles demands the blood of Polyxena – Hecuba’s youngest daughter, promised to him – to release the winds again. The sacrifices echo each other in Punchdrunk’s production: elevated above the crowd, made sacred in a terrible way. ‘Tragedy is not concerned with human justice,’ Beckett said. Emphasis on the human. But something is awry in the mirror. The blood produces no result. In Euripides’ play Agamemnon observes that ‘the god has not released the wind.’ The words aren’t spoken in Punchdrunk’s version but the same metabolism is at work. Repetition, wrongness, something breaking.

Ritual theatre can go badly wrong if seized by cod solemnity, always at risk of decaying into camp. It helps here that most of the actors are dancers, their bodies so unlike the audience’s, able to express something we only ever fumble, only ever partially inhabit. In the vast hall of Mycenae, a stone table runs ten metres or more: it is at times a stage, a bed, finally a road – the one Agamemnon always knew he would end by walking. He ascends the staircase wearing a robe, deep purple-red, which runs for metres and metres and metres behind him, crowned in a dazzlingly patterned skull. In the Agamemnon, Clytemnestra spreads red-purple carpets before him and bids him enter the palace to his death.

In the play of symmetries, exchanges and substitutions, human motivation barely figures: no mētis, no logos. Revenge, yes. But the horizontal transactions – between Mycenae and Troy – are subordinate to the vertical ones, sacrifice chief among them. The gods figure, however. As dancers, the company show what it is for a human body to have a god come under its eaves: enthousiasmos, the wild ancestor of our domestic ‘enthusiasm’. Like a paper boat on a violent sea. They know this and it delights them. ‘The true appearance of the gods is hard to bear,’ Hera says in the Iliad. A dance of lights between Apollo and Artemis is mesmeric, nearly unbearable. They mimic human torsion – mocking or fascinated? – racked and slain by passion and yet untouched.

Troy is Troy but it is also hell. Hecuba would agree with that. Dantean touches overlay the classical setting: there are café bars named Alighieri’s and Ciacco’s. The waters of the underworld are stacked in vats – Lethe, Cocytus, Styx – at the back of a bar called the White Cypress. In Dante’s Hell, sinners are stuck in the repeating pattern of their lives, subject to motive forces other than their own. (A rough guide to Dante might equate freedom of motion to degree of blessedness: the worst of the damned are frozen stiff, the lesser damned thrown around by the hurricane of desire, those in Paradise self-moved and free.) Overlaying pre and post-Christian underworlds implies a question: do they think the same thing about human beings? Dante thinks human beings can change, even at the very last moment. Did Euripides? Does Hades? He looks down and notices a crack spreading across the floor.

The White Cypress grows next to the House of Hades, according to the Orphic lamellae, scrolls of thin-beaten gold inscribed with instructions for the next world and interred with dead initiates. Cheat codes for the afterlife. Don’t drink the water near the White Cypress, it’s the water of forgetting. Declare yourself to be the child of earth and starry heaven, and demand the water from the fount of memory. A human being is a weird kind of hybrid. ‘Part dust, part deity,’ in the words of Christopher Logue’s Nestor.

Almost every character in The Burnt City repeats their loop, and some are almost aware that something is repeating them. Hades and Persephone do not repeat. There’s an irony here, given how often their story is taken as an emblem of repetition, the rise and fall of the seasons, Demeter’s winter grief. The contours of Persephone’s memory gradually emerge from the Lethean fog. Her story is outside of this history, this game. She is an arrow flying in the other direction from the women in the Burnt City, Clytemnestra or Hecuba or Polyxena. She ends up as a queen. Great, certainly; happy? Is that a meaningful question for Persephone?

Before she was a queen, Persephone was Korē, picking flowers – narcissi in particular – in the meadow. The name means ‘girl’ but also ‘pupil’, like the eye of the narcissus looking back at her. The story keeps coming full circle. What happened at the Mysteries at Eleusis was said to be arrēton, ‘unspeakable’ because prohibited and secret, but also ‘unutterable’ in words. They can only be experienced. Where else can a mortal being encounter the queen of the underworld without dying? Or as Dante, many centuries later, imagined the heretic Farinata saying to him, in amazement: ‘O you who walk through the city of fire while yet living.’