First person

I went to the new Punchdrunk show and this is what happened

The pioneering immersive theatre group have broken away from their usual multiple storyline style in favour of an audio storytelling tour voiced by Helena Bonham Carter. Helen Coffey removes her shoes (it’s mandatory) and dives into the world of ‘Viola’s Room’

Monday 03 June 2024 21:30 BST
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Welcome to ‘Viola’s Room’, Punchdrunk’s latest production
Welcome to ‘Viola’s Room’, Punchdrunk’s latest production (Julian Abrams)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

I lie on the floor in all-encompassing pitch-black – as if my eyeballs have been dipped in ink – and feel my heart thudding in my chest. “No one’s going to grab you,” I think, over and over, a 37-year-old woman reduced to box-breathing to stay calm in the face of overwhelming darkness. “It’s not going to happen. They said so on the briefing sheet. They promised.”

In fact, this child-like thought runs on repeat to the extent that I’m barely listening to Helena Bonham Carter’s purring, mildly creepy tones in my ears as she sets up a classic fairytale featuring a princess growing up in a palace. Moments earlier, I’d walked into a Nineties-era teenage girl’s bedroom, before being told to lie down on one of the beds on the floor. Then, all the lights went out.

This is Viola’s Room, the new production from famed immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, staged in their now-permanent London home near Woolwich. In the past they’ve recreated the neon backstreets of Downtown Troy, an ersatz old Hollywood film studio, a dreamlike landscape of the Deep South. Elaborate worlds are painstakingly created – often in sprawling, labyrinthine sets. Tickets notoriously sell out in minutes; fans speak about past shows in hushed, reverent tones; and, for the performances themselves, phones are confiscated and locked away, while guests go forth and seek out one-of-a-kind experiences.

Prior to entry to Viola’s Room, the aforementioned briefing card reassured me that “there are no jump scares in the experience – if you see a member of staff, they will be there to provide assistance”. But one of the reasons for my nerviness is that this latest offering is a far cry from their usual fare; I’m simply not sure what to expect.

Punchdrunk’s brand of interactive, experiential performance isn’t for everyone, a fact I only discovered very recently. When we got the invite for Viola’s Room through to the office, I was shocked at one colleague’s eyeroll and denouncement of the group as “cringe”, while another proclaimed it “just wasn’t her kind of thing”.

‘Viola’s Room’ is an audio-led fable voiced by Bonham Carter
‘Viola’s Room’ is an audio-led fable voiced by Bonham Carter (Julian Abrams)

“What – pioneering, immersive storytelling isn’t your kind of thing?” I demanded shrilly. “World-class dance theatre isn’t your kind of thing? Award-winning, intricate set and prop design on a completely different scale to anything else on the scene today isn’t your kind of thing?” (Yes, I really am that insufferable.)

I don’t know why I took it as such a personal afront – I suppose in much the same way we all do when faced with someone’s failure to see the obvious appeal of our favourite book, band, or film. It feels impossible to comprehend – were we experiencing the same thing, you think incredulously? How can another human being have such a diametrically opposed reaction to this magical alchemy that, not to be too melodramatic about it, spoke to your very soul?

For those unfamiliar with the originally UK-based troupe, founded by Felix Barrett in 2000, Punchdrunk has gained global acclaim for staging shows in which audience members are encouraged to wander freely, wherever they please, following characters at will. It’s the highest-brow form of “choose your own adventure”, the idea being that no two people will have the same experience (and that you could go multiple times and never see the same performance twice). White masks are usually mandatory for audience members, adding to the theatrical atmosphere. This flourish makes it feel like you’re in a Greek chorus – a witness to, and voyeuristic spectator of, the unfolding drama.

The company reached peak fame, verging on overexposure, when its New York staging of the Macbeth-inspired Sleep No More featured in an episode of the original Gossip Girl TV series in 2011. I’m not here for the snide “I liked them before it was cool” jibes, though – I’ll happily turn up to anything and everything Punchdrunk does. Please, take my money!

Still, Viola’s Room is a huge departure from what I’ve previously experienced. This production is audio-led, a fable voiced exquisitely by Bonham Carter in which storytelling and set do all the heavy lifting with no other actors involved. We’re put into small groups for the experience, given headphones with audio packs and told to turn off phones and smartwatches. The final instruction – the one I feel less enthusiastic about – is to remove our shoes. It’s not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with my feet, per se; just that I believe them to be the least attractive feet in human history. Mercifully, the waiting room is dimly lit.

We’re to stay together as a group throughout and “follow the light” once inside. Unlike other productions, there is no succumbing to your own exploratory whims here – a trail is laid out, literally illuminating where you should go, as the fairytale unfurls and plunges into darker territory. Somewhere between Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, The Red Shoes and Swan Lake, its notes are new but curiously familiar. The tale itself is gorgeously crafted, each word meticulously hand-picked by Booker Prize-shortlisted Daisy Johnson to layer lyricism on top of plot. Bonham Carter chews over syllables and swallows them whole in a way that sends shivers down my spine.

Bonham Carter chews over syllables and swallows them whole in a way that sends shivers down my spine

Light and shadow lead us deeper into the centre of the story. At one point, we are back in the teenage bedroom, entranced by torn-out book pages stuck to walls; at another, brushing through white garments hanging like ghosts; at another, peering over a rotting, Miss Havisham-style banquet, a technicolour feast of past-their-best potato waffles and jellies glinting in the low light. When Bonham Carter’s narrative stills, expertly curated music picks up where she left off, with Massive Attack’s “Angel” used to bone-chilling effect as the narration urges us to “go quickly now”.

Disorientated, I lose all sense of time and place. We wind through padded corridors and walk tentatively out across sandy ground – the darkest moments of the story are punctuated by physical darkness, in which I stand stock still, a rabbit desperately wishing she was in headlights.

Then, abruptly, it’s over – 45 minutes gone in the blink of an eye. I make use of the foot-washing station (I’m still not sure it was totally necessary to enforce mandatory shoelessness) and sidle over to the bar – a cornerstone of any Punchdrunk performance – to quietly digest the experience. While it didn’t quite hit the highs of one of the company’s full-on immersive productions for me, it was a masterclass in gripping an audience’s attention using nothing but sound, set and a good story. Better yet, even immersive-haters don’t have to deal with the awkward cringe of – God forbid – interacting with a flesh-and-blood actor. They can just follow and enjoy.

With prices starting from £28, it’s also a hell of a lot cheaper than the capital’s other “immersive” experiences (£55 for Secret Cinema, anyone?). No eyerolls from me – I’m still a Punchdrunk stan, ready to evangelise to anyone who’ll listen. Just be prepared to do some box-breathing if you’re afraid of the dark…

‘Viola’s Room’ has tickets available to book until 18 August.

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