‘The most distilled, pure version of a Punchdrunk show’ – the immersive legends return with ‘Viola’s Room’

Twenty-four years ago, an unknown student theatre company named Punchdrunk staged an elaborate immersive performance for one audience member at a time, based on Edwardian writer Barry Pain’s macabre short story ‘The Moon Slave’.

‘It’s genuinely my favourite thing we’ve ever done’ says company founder Felix Barrett of the show, which he put on as a student at Exeter University, ‘just the sheer intensity of it – the most distilled, pure version of a Punchdrunk show.’

If you’ve heard of Punchdrunk but not ‘The Moon Slave’ then that’s understandable: Punchdrunk has gone on to become the most important immersive theatre company in the world, making their name with colossal, ominous explorable worlds visited by thousands every week. By contrast ‘The Moon Slave’ was staged one chilly night in November 2000… and only four people ever saw it.

‘We saved up and we could still only do it for one evening,’ reminiscences Barrett. Trying to make a name for themselves, the invites were strictly industry: one local journalist, and three local Arts Council reps. ‘We used a marine flare for the finale of each performance, and we literally couldn’t afford more than four,’ sighs Barrett.

Quarter of a century on and money isn’t a problem: Punchdrunk is by far the biggest immersive company in the game, with a string of huge international and domestic hits – its most recent was Trojan War epic ‘The Burnt City’, staged at Woolwich headquarters Carriageworks. 

For a follow-up, Punchdrunk is bringing ‘The Moon Slave’ back… or rather a new adaptation of the same story, that seeks to recapture some of the chilling power of that original show.

It’s called ‘Viola’s Room’, and will be a departure from the ‘mask shows’ that Punchdrunk are most famous for. That is to say, you won’t be required to wear a mask, as it’ll be a linear, hour-long piece with no live cast. 

You won’t be free to roam, but will follow a fixed route as you form a group of two to six (two being optimum) to attend a ‘sleepover’ that will bleed into Pain’s story about a princess drawn to an ancient maze, which has been adapted by Booker Prize-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson. Joining us on our short Zoom call, Ridley speaks vocally of admiring the ‘Angela Carter-like lushness of the language’ in Pain’s disquieting fable.

This is gonna be epic in its own way

Barrett is very coy about specific details of what will happen in the show – beyond noting it’ll heavily revolve around Gareth Fry’s sound design – but demurs from the suggestion that ‘Viola’s Room’ is about Punchdrunk trying to scale back after the colossal ‘Burnt City’.

‘This is gonna be epic in its own way,’ he says. ‘And certainly in terms of intimacy and claustrophobia it’s going to be really high impact. It will be the largest version of this other sort of form that we do – it’s essentially a large show, just for a focused group.’

While ‘Viola’s Room’ is only scheduled to run for a little over a month, Barrett seems reasonably confident that it will be able to meet the inevitable demand: with no cast, staggered small groups will be able to enter the show all evening in the week, and all day at weekends, with the only real restriction the requirement for them to be spaced out enough to not bump into the preceding group. It’ll also be notably cheaper than their larger-scale work, with adult tickets a relative steal at £28.50.

Barrett recently suggested that Punchdrunk is done with mask shows. He stands by that ‘for now’, but qualifies that he meant no more new mask shows, which tantalisingly opens the prospect for revivals of by far the greatest back catalogue in immersive theatre. 

There was an eight-year gap between the company’s major shows ‘The Drowned Man’ and ‘The Burnt City’, but Barrett insists that with Punchdrunk now having a permanent base in its huge Woolwich HQ Carriageworks, there will be a lot more from the company in the future.

The venue is divided up into three spaces: currently it hosts some leftover bits of ‘The Burnt City’, the embryonic ‘Viola’s Room’, and a third project that we’ll learn more about ‘in good time’. Barrett thinks it’s unlikely that ‘Viola’s Room’ will extend, because they need the space for other stuff: ‘I think it’s a limited run because the thing about being prolific is that you actually need to schedule.’

For now though it’s a thrill to have Punchdrunk back just a few months after its last show ended. Whatever turns out to be in ‘Viola’s Room’, you can guarantee that it will be a heck of a trip finding out.

‘Viola’s Room’ is at the Carriageworks, Woolwich, May 14-Jun 16. Buy tickets here from March 20.

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