‘When we first started nobody used the word “immersive”,’ reflects Felix Barrett. ‘We were a “site-specific” theatre company. Immersive is something that’s come along in the last ten years or so.’
If 2022 is going to be a big year for what we now call immersive theatre, then there is very little question as to who is mostly responsible. Barrett is the artistic director of the remarkable London-based theatre company Punchdrunk. Maybe immersive theatre would exist without them. Maybe it wouldn’t. But there’s no denying that they are by far the most popular and successful practitioners of it to have ever existed: their haunting, spectacular worlds staged in huge old buildings offer a level of detail, scale and audience interaction that is simply unmatched by anyone else, and they have scored successes with them the world over. They are, to put it very crudely, The Beatles of their genre: hugely successful, forever on an unreachable pedestal.
Except that unlike the legendary band, they’ve been able to take time to regroup between releases: their last major show was London’s colossal fable of a fallen Hollywood, ‘The Drowned Man’, which closed in 2014. ‘Sleep No More’, their unsettling riff on ‘Macbeth’, has been a major hit in New York and Shanghai. But new material hasn’t been forthcoming in a long time as the company has gone into deep R&D mode, with both incarnations of ‘Sleep No More’ shuttered by the pandemic (though Shanghai has been back for some time).
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But in 2022 Punchdrunk are coming back strong. ‘Sleep No More’ is finally due to return to its New York home the McKittrick Hotel next month. And later in spring the company’s new London show ‘The Burnt City’ will premiere in two huge buildings in the newly buzzy borough of Woolwich.
‘It feels a bit like a comeback album!’ laughs Barrett. ‘But I don’t feel intimidated about that, I just feel hugely excited. We haven’t done a large-scale London show for eight years so it feels like there’s a whole new generation of theatre-goers to entice into the building. What I’ve loved when we’ve done work internationally has been that audiences don’t know anything, it’s almost as if there’s a sort of doorway to a whole new secret world. What’s great coming back to London now is that there’s a whole opportunity to do that with an audience who are in their twenties who have never seen much like this before.’
Housed in two vast former arsenal buildings, ‘The Burnt City’ is a truly epic work. Set at the end of the Trojan War, it’s based on plays by Euripides and Sophocles… and Fritz Lang’s seminal early sci-fi film Metropolis. One building will represent Troy on the night before it fell, a lively, sophisticated, retro-futurist cityscape heavily inspired by Lang. The other will be a classically beautiful but desolate Greece, drained of life by its war effort. Audiences will be free to wander both areas – providing they can show their papers at the checkpoint building that joins them – and be swallowed by two huge worlds and the characters living in them.
In London, Punchdrunk’s return comes at a moment of peak popularity for immersive theatre. The British capital now boasts several long-running shows in the genre, notably ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Doctor Who: Time Fracture’, ‘The War of the Worlds’, and, heck, ‘Mamma Mia! The Party’. While none of them has the depth and scale of a Punchdrunk show, it’s clear that London audience tastes have moved to the point that a dramatic form that once seemed outré is now widely accepted by the general theatregoing public. Indeed, you can see from the semi-immersive trappings of the current Eddie Redmayne-starring blockbuster revival of ‘Cabaret’ – which transforms a West End theatre into a Weimar Berlin nightclub – just how integrated into the mainstream it’s all become. In the pipeline for 2022 is a new immersive show based on the BBC period crime drama ‘Peaky Blinders’, and ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ at the Tower of London, which will use a mix of AR and live acting to thrust you into the notorious 1605 scheme to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Over in New York, things are just starting to warm up again after the pandemic took the wind out of the city’s immersive sails. As Time Out New York theatre editor Adam Feldman says: ‘Immersive theatre seemed to be growing at a rapid pace a couple years ago, with two high-profile and long-running shows seemingly going strong (“Sleep No More”, “Then She Fell”) and many others popping up trying to be the next big thing. But Covid put an end to that.’
For various complicated reasons, London’s theatres have been faster to reopen than New York’s. However, there are reasons to look up. There have been some smaller scale NYC immersive successes in the pandemic era, notably the outdoor show ‘Voyeur’ and the surreal, small-scale ‘Bottom of the Ocean’ for just five audience members booking throughout the year. And then most importantly, there’s the return of ‘Sleep No More’. Currently due to reopen February 14, Feldman wonders if the Omicron surge might delay it, but this pillar of the modern NYC theatrescape – the single most successful immersive theatre show of all time – will certainly be back soon.
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‘“Sleep No More” is simply in a category of its own in terms of the sheer scope of the enterprise,’ enthuses Feldman. ‘It is much larger than the version that originally played in London. There are some 90 different rooms spread out over five floors, and the experience is overwhelming. For lack of a better term, it is also cool; the Hitchcockian design makes it feel like a swank, retro place to hang out, whether you actually care about the show or not.’
Does its success mean New York is unlikely to see another Punchdrunk show anytime soon? Barrett thinks not. ‘I’d love to get another show on in New York! London’s our priority over the next few months, but New York is almost our home from home, so it would be great to get something new on. We’re in this period now when I think, having been under the radar prepping, we’re ready to push out. We’re going to be a lot more prolific from now on.’
That’s good news for all of us: where Punchdrunk blaze the trail, dozens of other immersive innovators follow. After eight years away, they’re ready to reclaim their crown.